FIRST Principles for March 3, 2017

Welcome to the News Media for Open Government FIRST Principles Updates

Name Change: Why we became News Media for Open Government. Working for over a decade as the Sunshine in Government Initiative, we adopted a new name, a new, broadened mission to protect newsgathering, and a new look. And in 2017, we’ll be doing more to help our member groups keep track of trends and fight to protect newsgathering and open government. Comments, concerns, tips or suggestions? Send them to Rick Blum, director, News Media for Open Government at rblum@foropengov.org.

Appreciation to our members. If you support these groups through membership or contributions, you support our efforts to protect and defend newsgathering and open government, and we appreciate it: American Society of News Editors, The Associated Press, Association for Alternative Newsmedia, National Association of Broadcasters, National Newspaper Association, News Media Alliance, Online News Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Society of Professional Journalists.

TechDirt lawsuit goes anti-SLAPP. TechDirt founder Mike Masnick asked a court to dismiss a defamation lawsuit against the online publication under California’s strong anti-SLAPP (“strategic lawsuits against public participation”) law protecting defendants from deep-pocketed lawsuits that suppress speech and public debate. Even though these anti-SLAPP laws — which exist in most states — are protecting rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, no such protection exists in federal law.

Renewed criticism of leaks, but little talk of specific harms

Almost daily leaks within the executive branch and questions about Russia’s possible ties to the administration have renewed debate about leaks to the news media. House Intelligence Committee Chairman David Nunes (R-CA) said he would investigate who leaked a telephone conversation between Michael Flynn and a Russian diplomat.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) said he would focus on investigating Russia’s efforts to influence U.S. elections. He noted the FBI is in charge of investigating leaks, and “you can feel fairly confident that the FBI is doing their job.”

Meanwhile, the heads of two House committees wrote to the Department of Justice inspector general asking the office to investigate the mishandling of classified information. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and House Judiciary Committee Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) expressed concerns about the mishandling of classified information.

Our coalition of news media associations remains concerned with investigations and prosecutions related to leaks to the news media and any efforts to use the Espionage Statutes against the news media. We are introducing our coalition to the respective committee members and their staff to ensure the news media’s perspective is heard on these important matters.

Senate Intel Committee’s spending bill requires guidelines and disclosure of entertainment industry “engagements.” The Senate’s proposed Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal 2017 requires intel community to report “engagements” with entertainment industry. Work with movie producers or other “engagements” with the entertainment industry would have to be reported under a proposal included in the intelligence authorization legislation for fiscal year 2017. The legislation is currently waiting a vote in the full Senate. The provision, Section 308 of S. 133, was amended to specifically exclude “routine inquiries made by the press or news media to the public affairs office of an intelligence community.”

The FOIA Ombudsman proposals formalize mediation procedures, continue to duck assertive compliance role. The Office of Government Information Services, or the FOIA Ombudsman, is proposing regulations on one portion of its mandate, how it mediates disputes under FOIA between agencies and requesters.

Established by Congress with our news media coalition’s support in 2007, OGIS’s proposed regulations focus almost entirely on its mediation program and postpone plans for dealing with agency compliance reviews and issuing advisory opinions. Further, OGIS proposes that their final response letters, which are used to document the resolution of mediation cases, should be kept confidential and not relied upon in court or administrative appeal. This proposal, if adopted, runs completely counter to the productive role OGIS was intended to play as an engine to bring an independent eye to FOIA disputes and drive commonsense improvements in the way agencies fulfill their FOIA obligations.

Several organizations submitted comments on the proposed regulations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an NMOG member. 

THEY SAID IT: We applaud others for speaking up for a free press

Last week, Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) expressed support for a free press, suggesting at a National Association of Broadcasters event several ways Congress could support a free press, including enacting a federal shield law to protect unnamed sources.

Recently Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a longtime champion of open government, FOIA and free press, issued a statement reaffirming the fundamental importance of a free press and democratic institutions. Read the statement here: http://bit.ly/2kACRpX NMOG members may want to express appreciation to Sen. Leahy for supporting the media’s recent work.

On the other side of the aisle, Senator John Cornyn (R-Tx.), declined when asked to call the media an “opposition party,” but reaffirmed there is a “healthy adversarial relationship” between the press and officials.

Quotable quotes from Mike Cavender, RTDNA executive director:

Radio Television Digital News Association executive director Mike Cavendar gets to the heart of the media’s perspective on the “running war” Donald Trump said he has with the media.

President Trump and his administration must learn to understand and embrace the relationship between politician and press. It is not one of lap dogging and alternative facts. To the contrary, it is one of investigation and skepticism. 

In the final analysis, this is not about the media. This is about the public. Providing Americans with credible and accurate information about their government is the best way to insure our 240-year old republic will not only survive, but will prosper.

See: rtdna.org/article/a_free_flow_of_information_no_longer

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was recently asked whether the administration would support a proposal by Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin for a national shield law to protect reporters’ sources. “That’s a great question,” Spicer said before promising to follow up with an administration response.

ICYMI: Steve Bannon learned something from David Halberstam. Late to point this out, we know, but on Feb. 4, the New York Times published a story noting Steve Bannon read David Halberstam’s legendary book, “The Best and the Brightest,” which chronicles the mistakes made in the White House and the effects on the battlefield in Viet Nam. H/T to NYT sports reporter Marc Tracy for noticing Mr. Bannon and the book he was carrying in an airport during the transition.

And finally, former President George W. Bush, known for advancing secrecy, supported journalism in an interview for NBC’s Today show. “It’s kind of hard to tell others to have an independent free press when we’re not willing to have one ourselves,” the former president noted.

Correction: This post was corrected to state that most states have some type of anti-SLAPP legislation.