Open government in Mass. moves to closer to reality

The following is a press release from the ACLU of Massachusetts.

BOSTON—In a pair of unanimous, bipartisan votes, the state House of Representatives and Senate today passed the first major reform of Massachusetts public records law in four decades, sending it to Governor Charlie Baker, who has 10 days to sign, veto, or let it become law without his signature. If signed into law by Governor Baker, the legislation would address widely criticized weaknesses in Massachusetts public records law, which make it hard for citizens to get information about how their government functions.

“This is a great day for open government,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We thank the House and the Senate for making public records reform a priority and for getting the job done. We also call on Governor Baker to do the right thing and sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.”

The bill would:

  • Set clear limits on how much money government agencies can charge for public records;
  • Set reasonable time frames for responses to public records requests;
  • Allow municipalities to request additional time for compliance and the ability to charge higher fees to cover reasonable costs;
  • Strengthen enforcement of the law by giving courts the ability to award attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public records.

The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance—a coalition of open-government groups—praised the House and its leadership for making transparency a significant legislative priority. The coalition urged Governor Charlie Baker to sign the legislation without delay and usher in a new era of openness in Massachusetts state government.

“A strong public records law is critical to democracy and our ability as citizens to hold government accountable,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “With today’s vote, the House and the Senate made a significant commitment to transparency and freedom of information, improving open government, and moving our state a huge step forward from near last in the nation. This reform is long overdue and we hope the Governor will sign it without delay.”

In November, the Center for Public Integrity released a report that gave the Commonwealth an “F” grade on public access to government information for the second time in a row. Dozens of organizations have advocated for comprehensive public records law reform, arguing that the law is among the weakest in the country and needs updating for the digital age. State lawmakers made their last substantive amendment to the law in 1973.

“This bill represents a significant step forward for transparency in Massachusetts,” said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “It will do a lot to improve access to public records. We hope and expect Governor Baker will prove himself to be a transparency-minded Governor by signing it into law.”

“Massachusetts residents deserve a stronger public records law, and this bill offers many improvements. We look forward to the governor signing it into law and providing more opportunity to hold government officials accountable,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.

The pending legislation advanced earlier in the week when a conference committee of six legislators reconciled earlier versions passed by the House and Senate. The bill passed by the House and Senate today includes provisions designed to reduce the cost of obtaining public records and ensure timely responses to information requests. In addition, by allowing courts to award attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public information, the bill would bring Massachusetts into line with 47 other states. The new law would not make such fee awards mandatory, but would establish a presumption in favor of covering requesters’ legal costs when courts find the law has been violated. The bill also includes safety-valve mechanisms to enable municipalities to get extensions on compliance deadlines and to receive reasonable compensation when dealing with particularly complex, time-consuming requests.

The full bill, An Act to improve public records (now H.4333), can be found here: https://malegislature.gov/Document/Bill/189/House/H4333.pdf.

Public-records reform: Start with weak tea; add water

Judging from the tone of coverage, it’s hard to tell whether the Massachusetts House’s unanimous approval of public-records reform legislation Wednesday was a step forward or a setback. But it sounds like the already-watery bill under consideration has been diluted still further.

Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and a staunch advocate of reform, is everywhere, telling Andy Metzger of the State House News Service that the bill is “a mixed bag”; lamenting in an article by Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe, “My concern is that the bill had just introduced an awful lot of ambiguities”; and describing the legislation as “one step forward and one step back” in an article by Shira Schoenberg of MassLive.com.

The problem is that even though Massachusetts’ public-records law is among the worst in the country (the Center for Public Integrity recently gave the state an “F” for public access to information), the bill passed by the House both giveth and taketh away. Here’s Wallack:

The legislation includes a measure designed to reduce the fees for copies. It orders government agencies to publicly designate someone to handle public records requests, and it gives citizens the opportunity to potentially recoup their legal fees if they successfully sue to obtain records….

But the bill also gives agencies significantly more time to respond to requests, allows them to outsource some requests to vendors, and did not go as far as some advocates had hoped to rein in labor charges and penalize officials who flout the law.

The bill also continues to exempt the governor’s office, the judiciary and the Legislature itself from the provisions of the law. A commission is going to study that — although, needless to say, it would be a major surprise if we ever heard about it again.

The only hope now is that the Senate will strengthen the legislation when it comes up for consideration early next year. The danger is that Gov. Charlie Baker will sign a weak bill into law, officials will pat themselves on the back for a job well done, and meaningful reform will be put off for another generation.

At Rolling Stone, doubt preceded publication

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 12.26.06 PMSabrina Rubin Erdely, the journalist at the heart of the Rolling Stone rape-story scandal, harbored doubts about “Jackie,” her principal source, all along — or, at the very least, had come to doubt her by the time the story was published.

That’s the only way I can make sense of a remarkable section that appears fairly early in the Columbia Journalism Review’s 12,000-word report on Rolling Stone’s article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia for which there turned out to be no credible evidence. The report was written by Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism; Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate researcher. According to the report:

A week after publication, on the day before Thanksgiving, Erdely spoke with Jackie by phone. “She thanked me many times,” Erdely said. Jackie seemed “adrenaline-charged … feeling really good.”

Erdely chose this moment to revisit the mystery of the lifeguard who had lured Jackie and overseen her assault. Jackie’s unwillingness to name him continued to bother Erdely. Apparently, the man was still dangerous and at large. “This is not going to be published,” the writer said, as she recalled. “Can you just tell me?”

Jackie gave Erdely a name. But as the reporter typed, her fingers stopped. Jackie was unsure how to spell the lifeguard’s last name. Jackie speculated aloud about possible variations.

“An alarm bell went off in my head,” Erdely said. How could Jackie not know the exact name of someone she said had carried out such a terrible crime against her — a man she professed to fear deeply?

Over the next few days, worried about the integrity of her story, the reporter investigated the name Jackie had provided, but she was unable to confirm that he worked at the pool, was a member of the fraternity Jackie had identified or had other connections to Jackie or her description of her assault. She discussed her concerns with her editors. Her work faced new pressures. The writer Richard Bradley had published early if speculative doubts about the plausibility of Jackie’s account. Writers at Slate had challenged Erdely’s reporting during a podcast interview. She also learned that T. Rees Shapiro, a Washington Post reporter, was preparing a story based on interviews at the University of Virginia that would raise serious doubts about Rolling Stone’s reporting.

Late on Dec. 4, Jackie texted Erdely, and the writer called back. It was by now after midnight. “We proceeded to have a conversation that led me to have serious doubts,” Erdely said.

You can see the problem. The story had already been published and had created a sensation. “I was shocked to have a story that was going to go viral in this way,” Erdely told the report’s authors. “My phone was ringing off the hook.” And Erdely felt queasy enough about what she had written that she was still bugging Jackie for the name of the guy who led the gang rape she claimed to have been subjected to at a UVA fraternity house.

From the time that Erdely’s story unraveled, I’ve been wondering what lessons journalists could take away from Rolling Stone’s institutional failures. Those failures were so profound and so basic that it’s hard to know how we can even look at this as a teachable moment. The lesson is “don’t do any of this.” As the CJR report makes clear:

  • Erdely had just one source, Jackie, for her account of the gang rape.
  • She made no more than a passing attempt at interviewing the alleged rapists — and, as we have seen, she never did find out the name of the supposed ringleader.
  • She also did not interview three friends of Jackie’s who supposedly spoke with Jackie shortly after the rape. As the author’s reports note, that stands out as the key failure, since they would have debunked many of the details, which in turn would likely have led to the unraveling of the entire story.

Jay Rosen of New York University has posted a must-read analysis of the CJR report. He writes, “The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.” Making the facts fit the story, in other words.

In reading the full CJR report, I think there are two other major problems: an understandable instinct to believe the victim (while less understandably ignoring the small internal voice saying, “No, wait, there’s something wrong here”). And a culture inside Rolling Stone that for whatever reason did not allow the story to be derailed even though everyone involved knew there were problems.

Sexual assault on campus is an enormous problem. I know there are those who question the oft-cited statistic that 20 percent of female students are victims. But whatever the true number is, it’s too high. Rolling Stone’s failures have set back efforts to do something about it. So I’ll close by noting that the CJR quotes my former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi on the right way to do this kind of reporting. Lombardi’s work in this area for the Center for Public Integrity truly represents the gold standard. From the report:

Problems arise when the terms of the compact between survivor and journalist are not spelled out. Kristen Lombardi, who spent a year and a half reporting the Center for Public Integrity’s series on campus sexual assault, said she made it explicit to the women she interviewed that the reporting process required her to obtain documents, collect evidence and talk to as many people involved in the case as possible, including the accused. She prefaced her interviews by assuring the women that she believed in them but that it was in their best interest to make sure there were no questions about the veracity of their accounts. She also allowed victims some control, including determining the time, place and pace of their interviews.

If a woman was not ready for such a process, Lombardi said, she was prepared to walk away.

In “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.”

Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her colleagues at Rolling Stone trusted (sort of) but did not verify.

This commentary also appears at WGBHNews.org.

Caitlin Flanagan on the harm caused by Rolling Stone

The single best analysis I’ve run across regarding the meltdown of Rolling Stone’s story about rape at the University of Virginia campus is by Caitlin Flanagan, the author of a long investigation into fraternities that was published by The Atlantic earlier this year.

Flanagan was interviewed by “On the Media” over the weekend. Give it a listen and you’ll understand why journalistic failures by Rolling Stone and journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely have done so much damage to the campaign against sexual assault on campus.

The gold standard for reporting on this issue has been set by my friend and former colleague Kristen Lombardi of the Center for Public Integrity. Here is an archive of her work.

A harrowing case of sexual assault on campus

This is long but worth it: a deep dive into a case of sexual assault on campus by Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times. If you’ve ever thought that the college form of justice discriminates against men and subjects them to unfounded accusations, here is an example of just the opposite occurring.

For more, here is my friend Kristen Lombardi’s series “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice,” which she reported for the Center for Public Integrity.

Please feel free to get angry at George Will all over again.

Polk Award winners put human faces on statistics

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Update: On April 14, Eli Saslow, whose work is described below, won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

Turning a topic into a story. Giving statistics a human face. Upsetting conventional assumptions about life’s winners and losers.

Three series spotlighting social inequality have won one of journalism’s top prizes. At a Long Island University panel discussion last Thursday, George Polk Award-winning reporters detailed how they did it. (Here is the complete list of 2013 winners.)

New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer, was combing the Web for a new subject when she came across these numbers: one in five American children lives in poverty.

Wanting to avoid the debate about adult responsibility for their condition, she decided to write about poverty’s effects on kids.

What’s the “narrative magnet”? she recalls she and her editors asking. What would get readers to read? Their answer: People, not numbers.

After weeks of chatting with women clustered around a filthy Brooklyn homeless shelter, she “found a young mother with a lot to say and who wanted to say it” and her feisty 11-year-old daughter, Dasani.

The more officials tried to bar her from the shelter, the more determined she was to get in.

Once there, she and photographer Ruth Fremson dived into immersion journalism, spending 15 months with the family to produce the nearly 29, 000-word series “Invisible Child.”

Conventional journalistic rules didn’t apply. “‘Off the record’ doesn’t mean anything to these folks,” Elliott said. “My stance is just to hang out with no agenda and try to fade into the background.” She protected people’s privacy by withholding or changing last names.

Elliott’s series, which she’ll expand into a book, focused on the personal, but she stressed the wider economic effects of child poverty. With so large a percentage of the future work force growing up in detrimental circumstances, she said, employers will face major problems finding qualified employees in the future.

Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow also used data to find a story and dogged reporting to make it come alive.

The Pulitzer Prize feature-writing finalist last year said,  “The stories we do at the Post have to be big.” So he sifted through big data: some 47 million Americans get food stamps; the $78 billion program has tripled in the past decade.

Then he turned those numbers into people. “Reporting is sifting information through a funnel,” he said. “That’s the most rewarding part of the job.”

He found that one-third of residents in Woonsocket, R.I., qualify for food stamps. He traveled to Woonsocket; to Tennessee, where he met hungry children; to a Texas county where processed food threatens health; and to a Washington neighborhood facing benefit cuts.

He and photographer Michael S. Williamson found a multi-general cycle of dependency and a whole industry centered around food stamps. Grocery stores hire more workers when they arrive on the eighth of each month. Cabs line up to take package-laden recipients to their houses. Food stamp recruiters try to sign up 150 people a month for the program.

Like Elliott, he handled his subjects with care. “After a while they forget you’re following them,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to let a stranger into every corner of your life.”

Well, at least the folks who helped cause the 2008 financial crisis lost big-time, right?

Not so much, Alison Fitzgerald and three Center for Public Integrity colleagues found. They detailed Wall Street bigwigs’ loss of jobs but not mansions.

Fitzgerald, who began her career at The Boston Phoenix and won several major awards while at Bloomberg News, said the center’s three-part series began with the question “What’s up with these guys?” as the fifth anniversary of the crisis (which coincides with the statute of limitations on prosecution) approached.

Another question:  What does “they got away with it” mean?

Almost none of the ex-corporate chieftains would talk to them, but one agreed to speak on background. But they got information from golf caddies (about how much or little they tipped) and bridge partners, and from reams of court documents and real-estate transactions.

Tracking most-2008 careers produced one surprise: many top executives are back in the mortgage business.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Goldsmiths honor journalism in the public interest

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

It started with one miner’s medical and legal nightmare and developed like a John Grisham novel. And finally it led to extensive reform of black lung diagnosis.

The Center for Public Integrity’s and ABC News’ yearlong work won it the $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting this week.

It took a medical database and exhaustive scrutiny of previously classified legal findings to produce the series. But Chris Hamby, the Center’s lead reporter, told a Harvard audience on Thursday that his research began with a plight “you just couldn’t ignore”: miner Gary Fox’s “outrageous” treatment by doctors and lawyers.

While Hamby circumvented privacy laws by getting miners’ consent to view their records, ABC News producer Matthew Mosk discovered a law firm that operated “like a John Grisham novel.”

As in past years, finalists for the Goldsmith awards, administered by the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, included much such collaboration between media and public service organizations. Goldsmith winners and finalists are traditionally seen as front-runners for Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced next month.

• The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which bills itself as “the world’s best cross-border investigative team,” used Australian, Chinese and British reporters to reveal a universe of offshore money manipulation that has sparked international tax investigations.

ICIJ director Gerald Ryle said he was leaked 2.5 million files via hard drive and is proud that none of his operation’s anonymous informants has been caught. The 50-article series provides important context into powerful figures’ financial machinations. “We didn’t want to be Wikileaks and just dump documents,” he said.

While Ryle said his reporting was attacked in the Australian Senate and drew four libel suits, he noted that a Chinese colleague has faced even more danger. Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, was fired and then critically wounded in an attack last month. Ming Pao was one of ICIJ’s partners in the Offshore Leaks investigation.

• Another wide-ranging project was a bilingual multimedia revelation of widespread sexual assault against immigrant women by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Frontline,” Univision and KQED.

Reporter Andres Cediel said it took 18 months after an anonymous tip to produce the series, which has sparked criminal charges and pending legislation. The problem: he was committed to telling their story in a human way, but the victims were afraid to talk on camera. His colleague Bernice Young said it took countless trips going door to door to gain their trust. “It was a long, slow process to build a relationship,” she said.

“Frontline” producer-correspondent Lowell Bergman, lead reporter on the project, noted that this was Univision’s first foray into investigative reporting and predicted more such efforts in foreign language media.

• Shorenstein director Alex Jones said the free weekly Miami New Times was “punching above its weight” when it tackled the steroid industry.

New Times managing editor Tim Elfrink, who noted his paper had previously done investigative reporting on a very local scale, said the series started when a whistleblower came to him irate over a $4,000 dispute. The informant gave him a bunch of confusing documents about a Biogenesis operation running out of a Coral Gables strip mall. Elfrink called thousands of clients’ phone numbers — getting rejected 90 percent of the time — but eventually scanned court records to uncover the shady records of some clinic operators.

The stories, which have won a prestigious Polk Award, led to the suspension of 13 baseball players and changed how baseball owners and players approach drug use.

• Seeking national impact and backed by supportive news executives, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel scoured medical records throughout the country to expose potentially fatal flaws in newborn screening. Lead reporter Ellen Garber led a five-person team through a maze of withheld data and official denials.

When her data requests were denied, she had to negotiate state by state for records — finally penetrating the system by discovering that Arizona had kept detailed records of newborns babies from a small Native American tribe. She then confronted the head of that state’s health department, who finally released complete records.

Garber said the series, which has won the Taylor Award for fairness in journalism and the prestigious Selden Ring award for the year’s top investigative work, has had an “incredible impact,” revamping the system so blood samples arrive promptly.

• The Wall Street Journal’s Michael M. Phillips doesn’t consider himself an investigative reporter, but after covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he followed up his novelist brother’s discussions with a psychiatric researcher. This led to the discovery of secret lobotomies of servicemen after World War II.

His problem was to find out how widespread this pattern was. Freedom of Information requests denied, he turned to the National Archives, which he recommends as a fertile source of vintage information. He unearthed 18 boxes of surgical records filed under “L” — lobotomy. He picked the cases with unusual names, thinking their families would be easier to trace after more than 60 years. The multimedia presentation revealed that more than 2,000 servicemen were lobotomized, and he was able to portray some surviving victims.

• Putting a human face on a “numbers” story is a perennial challenge for investigative reporters.

Reuters staffers Scot Paltrow and Kelly Carr found egregious and widespread Defense Department accounting mistakes. Their editors shared the view of the subject’s importance but wrestled with how to make it interesting.

“Vast amounts of dollars resonates little,” said Paltrow. So they settled on a human-interest beginning to show how massive programs affect individuals:

EL PASO, Texas — As Christmas 2011 approached, U.S. Army medic Shawn Aiken was once again locked in desperate battle with a formidable foe…. This time, he was up against the U.S. Defense Department. Aiken, then 30 years old, was in his second month of physical and psychological reconstruction at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, after two tours of combat duty had left him shattered…. But the problem that loomed largest that holiday season was different. Aiken had no money. The Defense Department was withholding big chunks of his pay.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Black-lung investigation wins Goldsmith Prize

breathless1b.jpg

The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity and ABC News last night won the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, presented by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School.

The award was for a report on black-lung disease, described as a “yearlong investigation [that] examines how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, have helped defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung, even as disease rates are on the rise and an increasing number of miners are turning to a system that was supposed to help alleviate their suffering.”

CNN’s Candy Crowley received the Goldsmith career award and delivered an address that she devoted mainly to misgivings about Twitter — an odd topic that led me to make this observation as I live-tweeted her talk:

The Shorenstein Center Storified all the proceedings. Click here to have a look.

Why you should be upset about “upset” emissions

ExxonMobil Refinery, Baytown TX
ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, Texas

Kristen Lombardi, the best reporter I ever worked with, has a horrifying new report on an environmental hazard you’ve probably never heard of before — “upset” emissions, accidental and/or unplanned dumping of toxic chemicals that is underreported precisely because it is accidental and/or unplanned.

A Boston Phoenix alumna who’s now on staff at the Center for Public Integrity, Lombardi finds that the miserable consequences of this dumping is particularly acute in the unregulated business paradise that is Texas and Louisiana.

“Nobody really understands what’s being dumped on them,” a former resident of Baytown, Texas — home of a massive ExxonMobil petrochemical complex — tells Lombardi. “It’s an invisible kind of poison that’s being rained down.”

Photo (cc) by Roy Luck and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Goldsmith awards reflect the changing media landscape

I recently had the privilege of helping to judge more than 100 entries for the 2013 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, which is administered by Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center. We chose six finalists, which were announced immediately, and a winner, which will be honored on Tuesday evening.

At a time when news organizations are struggling to survive, it was heartening to see so much good work. But the finalists also show how the world of investigative journalism is changing.

For instance, two of the newspapers that made it to the finalists’ circle, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, are owned by the troubled Tribune Co., which recently came out of bankruptcy and is now up for sale. If Tribune Co. ends up with the wrong owner, investigative excellence at its newspapers could become a thing of the past.

On the other hand, another finalist was produced by a collabortion among nonprofit news organizations: the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, Public Radio International and the Investigative News Network. This is no longer surprising. Rather, it is further evidence that nonprofits are essential to carrying out public-service journalism.

Further evidence of the way things are in 2013: two of the finalists were produced by the New York Times, which, despite financial problems of its own, is more firmly established today as our leading news organization than perhaps at any other time in our history.

The sixth finalist is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Cox paper that has been experiencing something of a revival in recent years.

The finalists’ entries themselves run the gamut, from sexual abuse in Boy Scout troops, to Walmart’s corporate misbehavior in Mexico, to how the chemical and tobacco industries conspired to foist toxic flame retardants upon the public.

In addition to the investigative reporting award, also to be presented on Tuesday will be the Career Award for Excellence in Journalism, which will go to keynote speaker Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times. The Goldsmith Book Prize will go to Jonathan M. Ladd for “Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters” and Rebecca MacKinnon for “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.”

The event, which is open to the public, will begin at 6 p.m. in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at 79 JFK St. near Harvard Square.