Tag Archives: Barack Obama

A journalist fights the power for public information


For more than three and a half years I’ve been fighting to access evidence from a trial that sent a man to prison for four consecutive life terms. The defendant in that case—Dr. Paul Volkman, the “Pill Mill Killer,” the “largest physician dispenser of Oxycodone in the US from 2003-2005”—went to college and medical school with my dad, and I’m trying to write a book about him.

Now, it might sound odd that I, or anyone in this country, would have to fight for access to trial evidence that’s already been shown in open court. Doesn’t the Sixth Amendment guarantee all citizens a public trial? Haven’t landmark court decisions established that trial evidence can’t be un-published? And, if all else fails, doesn’t the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) offer transparency insurance? After all, no one administering the law with President Obama’s 2009 “presumption in favor of disclosure” memo in mind would withhold previously published trial evidence, would they?

The answer to each of these questions is “You would think so.” But more than four and a half years after Volkman’s trial ended (the verdict was delivered May 10, 2011, a date tattooed on my brain), the vast majority of the evidence hasn’t been released. Judges, clerks, and prosecutors have all denied my requests. And when I filed a FOIA request with the Department of Justice in February 2012, the events that ensued were, in the words of MuckRock, a “nightmare.” That’s why—with the help of the Rhode Island ACLU and pro bono attorneys Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell from Nixon Peabody—I’m suing the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In a sense, my case revolves around a simple question: can the government seal off a trial—in this case, for reasons related to medical privacy—once the jury has been dismissed and the defendant hauled to prison? I say “No.” The government, apparently, says “Yes.”

And, for now, let’s stick with the theme of simplicity. Because, as this lawsuit trudges on, there’s really only one document you need to see. It’s a 62-page packet filed “for review and consideration by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals” by the Ohio US attorney’s office on February 19, 2013.

In February of 2013, Volkman was fighting to have his conviction overturned, while the Ohio US attorney (the office that had successfully prosecuted him) was fighting to make sure the conviction stuck. With this 62-page packet, prosecutors presented a curated selection—16 exhibits, out of more than 200 shown at trial—of their most powerful evidence. Unlike any of the other trial exhibits, the packet was uploaded to PACER, making it accessible to the public.

That’s worth repeating: by submitting this packet to the appellate court, prosecutors published trial evidence. And they did so with very few redactions. Only a handful of black bars appear in the packet to cover Social Security numbers and birthdays on death certificates, and—curiously—the last name of one of Volkman’s victims (but not three others) on prescription slips and medical-exam reports. Mostly, the trial exhibits are published in their pristine, un-redacted natural state.

Mind you, these are the same prescription slips, death certificates, and reports that were withheld or aggressively redacted when I asked the DOJ for them in 2012. And these are the same prescription slips, death certificates, and reports that the Rhode Island US attorney (which is handling the lawsuit for the DEA) withheld or aggressively redacted when the office attempted to settle my case with two new “releases” on July 29 and August 31, 2015.

Which brings me to the one thing to remember about my case. Even if you ignore the Sixth Amendment, pro-courtroom-transparency court decisions, and Obama’s “presumption in favor of disclosure” FOIA memo, the government’s stance in this case still doesn’t make any sense. Because, as the 62-page packet from 2013 shows, the government is currently defending a privacy line they’ve already broken.

Four and a half years is a long time to wait for the release of this trial evidence. And I’ve come to view my FOIA case as a symbol of a lot of things: bureaucratic incompetence; Obama-era bullying and intimidation of journalists; and the disturbing fact that the US government, in 2015, can’t live up to some of this country’s founding principles. But, as with so many governmental failures, this is also a story about wasted taxpayer dollars. After receiving my FOIA request in 2012, DEA employees spent untold hours painstakingly redacting pages of trial evidence that had already been shown in open court. (Six hundred seventy-four days passed between my first partial FOIA-response release in May 2013, and my last, in March 2015.) And, right now, it seems there are people in the Rhode Island US attorney’s office working to make sure this previously published evidence (a chunk of which was re-published, in 2013) doesn’t see the light of day.

These are not top-secret documents. This is evidence that sent a man to prison. This is evidence from a case that traveled all the way to the US Supreme Court. This is evidence that was presented in every US citizen’s name, since we were all plaintiffs in “the United States of America vs. Paul Volkman.” Welcome to the “most transparent administration in history.”

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist and former news editor at the now-closed Providence Phoenix. His work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, Vice, Salon, Rhode Island Monthly, and the Jewish Daily Forward. Email him at philip dot edward dot eil at gmail dot com and find him on Twitter at @phileil.

How U.S. respect for LGBT rights influences the world

My friend Susan Ryan-Vollmar has written an important op-ed piece for The Boston Globe about how respect for LGBT rights in the United States has a positive effect on the rest of the world.

Susan recently accompanied the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus to Israel and Turkey. While in Istanbul, government tanks blasted Pride marchers with tear gas and water cannons. It was a harrowing scene, but the chorus itself was able to perform in front of more than 3,000 people — in part because U.S. Consul General Charles Hunter, who’s married to a Turkish man, had made it clear he’d be attending. Susan writes:

The concert in Istanbul was a rare public expression of LGBT culture in the Muslim world. It would not have taken place without Hunter’s intervention. By informing the Turkish government in advance that he would be sitting in the front row, he ensured our safety, and that of the audience. It was one example of many this past June of US-led efforts to celebrate and honor LGBT people around the world by marking LGBT Pride month.

Something to think about as the 2016 presidential campaign gets under way.

Clean water, political infighting and the View from Nowhere


I’ve asked my students to come up with examples of news stories that reflect the View from Nowhere — an idea advanced by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen that, to oversimplify, amounts to “he said/she said” objectivity in its most mindless form — and to balance that with a second story demonstrating the View from Somewhere.

Since some of my students seemed a bit bewildered by the assignment, I thought I’d give it a try. My example is an announcement made on Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The two agencies have issued a new set of rules aimed at protecting small streams under the federal Clean Water Act. The rules are a reaction to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that cast the government’s regulatory authority into doubt.

My leading contender for the View from Nowhere is an article by The Associated Press whose very headline announces the story’s flaws: “New Federal Rules on Stream Protection Hailed, Criticized.” The reporter, Mary Clare Jalonick, focuses almost entirely on the political debate sparked by the new rules. The lede is serviceable enough. But watch what happens in the second paragraph:

WASHINGTON (AP) — New federal rules designed to better protect small streams, tributaries and wetlands — and the drinking water of 117 million Americans — are being criticized by Republicans and farm groups as going too far.

The White House says the rules, issued Wednesday, will provide much-needed clarity for landowners about which waterways must be protected against pollution and development. But House Speaker John Boehner declared they will send “landowners, small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

And so it continues, with Democrats defending the new rules, Republicans criticizing them and advocacy groups on either side of the issue weighing in. Yes, there’s some explanation along the way, but you never get an entirely clear sense of what the rules would actually do. Rather, it’s a political story, played out against the backdrop of partisan Washington. The informational needs of an ordinary member of the public are scarcely addressed.

I’ll get to my example of the View from Somewhere in a moment. But first, I want to flag this Washington Post story, which is largely grounded in the View from Nowhere but does a better job than the AP of telling us what we need to know — starting with the headline, “EPA Strengthens Federal Protections for Small Streams.” The emphasis is on what the EPA actually did and what effect it might have rather than on partisan politics. The first two paragraphs are full of useful information. Reporter Darryl Fears writes:

Nearly a decade after the Supreme Court pointed out the confusion over exactly which waters fall under the Clean Water Act, the Obama administration responded Wednesday with a new rule that states what is protected and what is not.

Navigable tributaries, as well as the rivers they feed into, are protected because the flow of streams and creeks, if polluted by farming and development, could affect the health of rivers and lakes, the rule states.

Farther down, Fears veers into the partisan battle, quoting an opponent, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, as well as the White House response. The story is also interspersed with tweets from elected officials. But partisan politics are not entirely unimportant, as congressional Republicans could overturn the new rules. Overall, Fears shows how to write a story that embraces the View from Nowhere while still managing to provide a coherent explanation of what happened and why.

My morning search for a story exemplifying the View from Somewhere failed to turn up exactly what I was looking for. But I did find an excellent article on the clean-waters issue from last September in Slate, which has always been a good source of explanatory journalism. With minor updating, the article, by Boer Deng, could have run today — and cast a lot more light on the EPA’s announcement than the AP or even the Post managed to provide. Look how she begins:

Everyone wants clean water, but not everyone agrees on how to make sure it stays pollution-free. The Clean Water Act is one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation in American history: Forty years ago, only a third of the country’s lakes and rivers could support fishing or swimming. Now two-thirds do. But when a bill for the CWA was offered up in 1972, Richard Nixon vetoed it, complaining that it would cost too much. It took a bipartisan congressional override to enact the law.

Controversy over the CWA continues, and a particularly ambiguous phrase in the law has been a perennial source of legal trouble. The CWA compels the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the integrity of the “waters of the United States.” Industrial interests argue that a reference in the text of the law to “navigable waters” limits federal jurisdiction to waters you can boat on. This has let them get away with discharging pollution into smaller waterways. Regulators disagree, since pollutants in these waterways drain into and threaten larger navigable waters, too.

OK, I’ll concede that Deng is leading with background information, which is generally thought of as not the best way to structure a story. But this is a really complicated issue. Thanks to Deng’s explanation, you now know exactly what it’s about before she asks you to jump into the deep end.

One characteristic about the View from Somewhere that can be difficult to get across is that though journalism with a point of view is sometimes opinionated, it doesn’t have to be. Deng takes a first-person stance and expresses the point of view that clean water is, in fact, a good thing. But she does not state an opinion as to whether the regulations that were then being considered were the best way to accomplish that goal. This isn’t opinion journalism. Her point of view is her expertise, which she earned by going out and doing the reporting.

As a result, opponents become human beings rather than caricatures. Instead of House Speaker John Boehner or Sen. Inhofe saying predictable things, she gives us Bob Stallman, head of the Farm Bureau, who asks a very reasonable question: “A good portion of the water on my rice farm would count as wetland ‘water of the U.S.’ Will I now need a permit every time I want to water my rice?” And Deng attempts to provide an answer: “The EPA says this is nonsense — and some of its administrators have expressed exasperation with what they see as willful misinterpretation that has undermined efforts to craft sound policy.”

Jay Rosen’s idea of what journalism can be is animated by the debate between two great philosophers — Walter Lippmann, whose book “Public Opinion” (1922) argued that ordinary people lacked the information, time and interest to be full participants in democracy, and John Dewey, whose retort to Lippmann, “The Public and Its Problems” (1927), took a more optimistic view. Rosen, in his 1999 book “What Are Journalists For?”, describes Dewey’s beliefs:

Democracy for Dewey meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how to study and discuss it. Time and again Dewey argued that to be a democrat meant to have faith in people’s capacities, whatever their recent performance.

(I put together a slideshow for my students on Rosen’s description of the Lippmann-Dewey debate, which you can see by clicking here.)

For Rosen, and for all of us, the question is how to encourage the journalism we need for John Dewey’s vision of a democratic society to work. It is also at the root of my 2013 book on new forms of online local journalism, “The Wired City.”

Stories such as Deng’s Slate article may not conform to the old rules of objective journalism. They may not embrace the View from Nowhere. But they tell us a lot more about what we need to understand public policy — about what our government is doing for and to us — and, thus, it provides us with information we need to govern ourselves.

Photo by Sergei Rubliov is in the public domain.

White House to suppress still more public records

This is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government. And President Obama is celebrating — by shrouding more White House public records behind a veil of secrecy. OK, this only makes official what had been longstanding policy. But still.

The Post digs into the Clintons’ dubious fundraising ties

I continue to be astonished that Hillary Clinton has no serious opposition for the Democratic presidential nomination. This time eight years ago, Barack Obama was mounting a full-scale challenge. Now, there are occasional noises from the likes of Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, but that’s about it. (Sorry, folks. Elizabeth Warren isn’t running.)

The latest piece of appalling news about the Clintons is a front-page story in today’s Washington Post revealing that the Clinton Foundation, run by her husband, Bill, took in millions of dollars from foreign governments while Hillary was secretary of state. Much of the money, write the Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger, “came from countries with complicated diplomatic, military and financial relationships with the U.S. government, including Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.”

The story is a follow-up to an earlier, equally appalling Post story about the Clinton Foundation’s dubious fundraising.

Caveat: Yes, the foundation’s money goes to good causes like earthquake relief, lowering the cost of drugs used to treat AIDS and HIV, and alleviating climate change. But it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that foreign governments seeking to curry favor with the Obama administration funneled money to Bill Clinton in order to receive more favorable treatment from Hillary Clinton.

Exposed! Check out this comment from Bob Gardner: “Not surprised that this story would get traction from an employee of the Koch-funded WGBH.”

Obama’s State of the Union drives conservatives crazy

State Of The Union

President Obama delivering his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Photo (cc) by NASA HQ.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There’s plenty of fulminating in conservative media circles today over President Barack Obama’s unabashedly liberal State of the Union address.

Some of it is offered in world-weary tones suggesting that, once again, the grown-ups have to explain to the kids that the president doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Mr. Obama’s income-redistribution themes are familiar,” The Wall Street Journal editorializes, “though they are amusingly detached from the reality of the largest GOP majority in Congress since 1949.”

Some of it is angry. “The president continues to count on and to exploit the ignorance of many of our fellow citizens,” thumps Scott Johnson of Power Line.

And some of it is just petulant. Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro concludes a long adolescent rant about Obama with this unmemorable line: “the state of his union sucks.”

Leave it to David Frum of The Atlantic, though, to explain what might have really been going on Tuesday night. A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Frum is the closest thing we’ve got these days to a moderate Republican commentator. And he thinks Obama was aiming his proposals — tax hikes for the rich, tax cuts for the middle class and new governmental benefits such as free community college — at an audience of one: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“The intent, pretty obviously, is to box in his presumptive successor as head of the Democratic Party,” Frum writes. “Every time the president advances a concept that thrills his party’s liberal base, he creates a dilemma for Hillary Clinton. Does she agree or not? Any time she is obliged to answer, her scope to define herself is constricted.”

The effect, Frum predicts, will be to push the pro-business Clinton to the left and thereby hand an opportunity to the Republican presidential aspirants.

Whatever Obama’s motivation, there’s no question that his demeanor was that of a conquering hero rather than a weakened president facing the first all-Republican Congress of his tenure.

“Obama delivered an hour-long defense of his policies that at times sounded like a victory lap,” is how David Nakamura puts it in his lead story for The Washington Post. In The New York Times, Michael D. Shear calls Obama “confident and at times cocky.” Matt Viser of The Boston Globe says the president was “confident, brash, and upbeat.”

If nothing else, Obama demonstrated that he understood the atmospherics of the State of the Union. It’s a TV show, with all the entertainment values that implies. And thus there was no need for him to acknowledge the Democrats’ brutal performance in the November elections, or that the proposals he offered Tuesday have no more chance of passing than, say, Canadian-style health care. He had the podium, and the Republicans could applaud or not.

The timing was right for Obama as well. With the economy finally showing real improvement, the president’s job-approval ratings are up a bit. An ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Obama at 50 percent approve/44 percent disapprove, while an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey has him at 46 percent approve/48 percent disapprove. Meanwhile, the public detests Congress as much as ever.

As for how the State of the Union was received, that’s a little harder to figure out. The only survey I’ve seen, from CNN/ORC, shows that 51 percent of viewers had a “very positive” reaction to Obama’s speech and 30 percent were “somewhat positive.” That’s sounds like a big thumbs-up until you look more closely at the numbers. It turns out that 39 percent of those surveyed were Democrats and just 20 percent were Republicans — a reflection of who watched the speech, not of public sentiment as a whole.

Another way of looking at that, though, is that Obama knew he was speaking to a friendly audience — not in Congress, but at home, as Democrats were far more likely to tune in than Republicans. So why not use the occasion to energize his supporters — and drive his enemies to distraction?

Obama’s detractors at Fox News were fairly restrained Tuesday night and online this morning. But you can be sure Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, et al. will be at it tonight. Meanwhile, consider this, from Charles Hurt of The Washington Times: “President Obama dedicated his State of the Union address to illegal aliens, college students and communist Cuba. In other words, all those imaginary supporters he claims to be hearing from ever since the actual American electorate denounced him, his party and his policies in last year’s beat-down election.”

More to the point, John Podhoretz writes in the New York Post that “in the most substantive speech he’s given in a long time, he has committed his presidency toward policies that have no hope of a serious hearing from the legislatures whose job it is to turn policies into law.”

Obama knows that, of course. The real message of the State of the Union was that the 2016 campaign has begun. Having long since concluded that the Republicans won’t compromise with him, the president delivered a political speech, aimed electing a Democratic president and Congress.

Race, diversity and watermelon toothpaste

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Boston Herald editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen makes a minor error in her explanation of how the racist cartoon linking President Obama and watermelon toothpaste made its way into the paper.

“For two weeks I have remained silent,” she writes at the start of her column, which appears today on the Herald’s op-ed page. In fact, Cohen took the hit right after publication, telling media blogger Jim Romenesko that she was “guilty as charged” for not anticipating the outrage that Jerry Holbert’s cartoon would provoke.

Which is to say that Cohen deserves credit for taking responsibility right from the beginning, and for writing a heartfelt apology today — explaining that she saw the cartoon and approved it unthinkingly. “It’s my job as an editor to see around corners, to look at all the possible meanings and nuances of words and of images.” she writes. “It’s my job and two weeks ago I failed at it miserably.” (Here’s what we said about the controversy on “Beat the Press” on Oct. 3.)

She absolves Holbert of harboring any racist views. She reminds her readers of the division between the news and editorial operations. And in this case, she says, her usual practice of having an editor from the news side take a look was not followed.

I’ll take Holbert and Cohen at their word that there was no racist intent. But Holbert drew a racist cartoon and Cohen published it. The Herald recently announced that it has asked the NAACP to get involved, and that’s a good step. But I continue to believe that the larger issue is a lack of diversity in the newsroom. I’m not saying that an African-American editor should have seen the cartoon before it was published. Rather, I’m suggesting that when people of color are part of the day-to-day conversations that take place in any workplace, these things are a lot less likely to happen.

And surely someone should have had the foresight to turn off comments on Cohen’s column. That way we would have been spared the anonymous troll who calls Gov. Deval Patrick “one of the most obnoxious race pimps ever.” Again, it’s a matter of what kinds of conversations are unfolding among journalists on a regular basis.

In any event, kudos to Cohen for a straightforward, no-excuses apology, and to the Herald’s management for coming to grips with a serious lapse in a serious manner. Let’s hope it leads to action.