Monday, December 8, 2008

Redaction Action, What's Your Faction?

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a man who handed me some documents containing 13 copies of applications he obtained through the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
The State of New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control issues permits for non-profit organizations, allowing them to conduct events where alcohol is served. The applications must provide the name and purpose of their non-profit organization, where the event will be held and the kinds of alcohol served at the event.
Since Ocean City is a dry town, where the production and sale of alcohol is illegal, these permits serve a purpose for non-profits to legally temporarily serve alcohol. Civic, religious or educational organizations must pay $100 per day to the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control with their applications. All other non-profit groups must pay $150 per day with their applications.
The man said he didn’t want his identity known because he conducts business with various people in town. I respected the confidentiality of my source, and he showed me the permits he obtained from the city.
He said he asked for the permits and told the city clerk to include information about the names of the non-profits and the location and dates of the events where alcohol would be served.
Yet what the man received from the city were documents that looked like something out of the Pentagon Papers: information redacted with thick black lines, blotting 11 of the 14 fields of information applicants provided in the 13 applications.
When the man questioned why the applications, which were public documents, had more black lines through them than the JFK assassination files, he was told the city administration redacted the information.
Flustered, the man contacted the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control and, through OPRA, received the applications with all of the information intact.
The story I wrote was about the man’s experience in receiving redacted documents from the city and unexpurgated applications from the state. I talked to the city clerk, who said she redacted the information because the man only asked for the name, place and date of the events. I also talked to a councilman who supported the city clerk’s decision.
But the real shit storm came from a reproduction of the two documents side by side on the front page. We chose a document at random to give a visual representation of an un-redacted document next to a redacted one. The documents were reproduced in their entirety, including the address and phone number of the non-profit organization’s contact person.
When we were editing the paper, I asked if we should reproduce this person’s contact information and I was told the unexpurgated application was a public document, obtained from the state through OPRA.
So we run the story and, predictably, the contact stormed into the newspaper office and expressed her rage at her information on the front page. She said the story “made it seem” like she was being singled out, which she wasn’t. In fact, her group was mentioned in the story as an example of what was redacted and not redacted from the documents. I also mentioned the names of the other non-profits and groups whose information was redacted.
She wanted to know who the anonymous citizen was who dared to make OPRA requests and dig up the applications, and after making a request at city hall she found out. So now my source’s name is known publicly.
I called him today and explained the situation. He wasn’t angry, but preferred his identity remained unknown because of his business dealings.
The story was newsworthy because local municipalities shouldn’t redact information from public documents. Period. Save that shit for countries with the words “People's Republic of” in their names. This wasn’t about who specifically requested the documents; it was that a citizen requested public documents and someone in the city chose to censor them. The citizen only found what he was looking for when the state provided the unaltered documents.
The state didn’t see a need to redact anything from the applications – the city did.
It's the Open Public Records Act, not the Open At Our Discretion Records Act.
As for reproducing the contact’s name, address and phone number, that was not intentional, but the information was on a public document. We Googled the contact’s name and found her address and map to her house, plus how much she donated to Barack Obama’s campaign. Our personal contact information is out there, whether we like it or not.
Another issue is dealing with anonymous sources. I don’t like them, but I don’t reject them, either. I take my job as a journalist very seriously and won’t reveal my sources if they choose to remain anonymous. I respect that. Reporters have been jailed for not revealing their sources. It’s a dicey game, but any serious reporter shouldn’t sell out their sources. Trust and integrity are important and if you don’t have that, nobody will ever talk to you. Imagine if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had screwed Mark Felt by outing him as Deep Throat.
Sadly, journalism ethics are lacking everywhere, especially when the reporter has friends they don’t want to embarrass, or an agenda they want to promote over objectivity. You don’t get Woodward and Bernstein today. You get the douchebag who exposed Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. You get whiny commentators whose journalistic credentials are microscopic to nonexistent, who’d be comfortable hosting Entertainment Tonight and talking about style over substance, asking the president what brand of suit he wore when he signed the wiretapping legislation.
George Orwell wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Maybe people don’t want to hear their city is censoring information from innocuous public documents.
So what?
Journalists dispense news. Whether it’s uncomfortable news or pleasant news is irrelevant. If you want to inform the public, become a journalist. If you want to keep people in the dark and dispense pabulum, go into public relations.
My lot is with the journalist.

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