Reporters Need To Fight Harder for FOIA
They certainly would have in the bygone era of 1970's investigative journalism
If we were living in the 1970s and Lou Grant was still around, he would be disappointed after the week we’ve had in our state with the Freedom of Information Act.
He'd probably cuss out anyone including media associations that heralded any change in the Freedom of Information Act as pragmatic. No change in FOIA should have ever occurred.
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He certainly would have fought like hell to reject a retroactive June 1, 2022, clause that makes FOIA exemptions protected that date forward instead January 1, 2022. And he certainly would have asked WTF happened in 2022 that Governor Sarah Sanders wants to hide. I know I am.
When I was a kid, I obsessed with “Lou Grant,” the CBS drama that ran from 1977 to 1982 — a time when investigative journalism was sexy coming off the Watergate scandal that took down President Richard Nixon. While other kids loved Barbie dolls and GI Joe, I loved newspapers. (Yes, I was a geek.)
Crotchety Lou Grant, played by Ed Asner, left a job as a television news producer (after being fired) and an ex-wife in Minnesota to return to the newspaper business at the fictional “Los Angeles Tribune” as its city editor. Newspapers were in troubled waters, and it was up to Grant, who got his journalism start in newspapers not broadcast, to figure out how to increase circulation. Weekly, he had to battle a changing journalism world, the advertising department, and a bossy publisher while making sure his reporters told compelling stories.
Even the opening credits for the show that first season fascinated me. A bird chirps, a tree falls, that tree becomes newsprint, and that newsprint becomes liner in the bird cage. To me it symbolized there was another story to write the next day and the one after that. Reporters just kept finding stories for readers to read. The work never stopped. Write a story. Find another one.
So, if Grant was an editor these days, how would he navigate the waters in these odd times?
Well, he would have fought harder this week at the legislative session. He would have had his reporters fighting. He would not have issues a statement saying he thought the compromise and an alternative bill focused on the governor and her families' was the best thing. He would have fought for transparency. And kept fighting until the legislature went home to their caves or wherever they live.
He would have stood up for the ghosts of media's past in this state who fought in 1967 to help then Governor Winthrop Rockefeller create the best Freedom of Information Act in the country that became a model for other steps. He would probably have said a lot of people this week had no balls. A lot of people did but a lot more didn't, believing the security of Sanders' family was paramount. Of course it is. So was the security of all the previous governors who had children while living in the Governor's Mansion. Sanders herself lived in the life of a governor's kid. Did she feel unsafe then when her dad was governor?
One critical element remains most constant in Lou Grant’s time and now.
In every episode of “Lou Grant,” Grant knew a compelling story was always worth seeking out, investigating and then clearly explaining to readers. And Sanders this week has certainly open the door for one dating all the way back to 2022. WTF is she hiding?
Grant also realized that taking chances for a front-page — or these days, it would be called “viral” — story was worth the expense and the agony of dealing with drama. In fact, he thrived on it for the sake of a good story. He would have an entire team working impossible hours to figure out what just happened in the legislative session.
Grant’s reporters may have used ancient typewriters and new-for-the-era desktop word processors but their end goal then just like the end goal now for any reporter is finding the story and telling it to readers. Take the bull by its horns with gusto.
The reporters in that fictional newsroom reported the stories of their day, finding new angles on police corruption, spousal abuse and Nazi sympathizers long before it was vogue in mainstream television. Sure, “Lou Grant” was a TV show, but it won 13 Emmys, and I learned a lot about journalism from it.
My hero on the show was Billie Newman, an intrepid girl reporter with a heart. She started her career in the lifestyles pages where women were relegated back in the 1970s. But when she was sent on assignment to interview a famous author and he ended up dead, Newman took the story and ran with it. She scooped Joe Rossi, the star reporter in the all-boy newsroom, and won Grant’s heart.
Grant, Newman and Rossi would be unstoppable in the current world of journalism. Social media, search engine optimization, or even would not intimidate Grant’s newsroom. Neither would bully legislators or the governor.
Grant would tell his reporters not to miss a tweet or a Facebook post by a possible corrupt politician or news figure. He would tell them not to believe the spin being spoonfed to them. At all. Question everything.
But most of all, Grant would tell them not to just report, but dig deeper, investigate a story. With deadlines looming, he would stress the tried-and true rules of journalism – ethics, original reporting (in the field), and fairness.
And he would see — even now — journalism as an honorable profession.
Without a doubt, over a stiff drink at his local watering hole with his staff, Lou Grant would seize the challenge before us. In this case, the continued fight to protect the Freedom of Information Act while uncovering the truth about what happened at the state capitol this week and in 2022. This story is not over. It's just beginning. After all, as Sanders said yesterday that she's not done with the Freedom of Information Act.
"We’ve made it very clear that our number one priority was the safety component within the FOIA legislation," she said. "That’s part of government. You come in, we got exactly what we really needed that is critical. … We’re not going to stop continuing to fight for more government efficiency and effectiveness, and I think that is just the beginning of this process."
That’s a red flag an investigative reporter sees very clearly. Don’t you?