'Sunshine Week' Sheds Light On Changes To Government Transparency For Journalists

Mar 14, 2019

This week is “Sunshine Week.” It's promoted every year by journalists and government watchdogs to highlight the importance of open government and transparency. 91.5 KRCC’s Mountain West News Bureau Reporter, Ali Budner, sat down with her MWNB colleague, Nate Hegyi in Salt Lake City, to talk about his recent reporting on the changes to government transparency for journalists.

Ali Budner, KRCC: So, you've been doing a fair amount of reporting lately on transparency, or lack thereof, in the Interior Department. And the FOIA process --or the Freedom of Information Act-- is a big part of what journalists interface with when they're trying to get information from public agencies. So, what does Sunshine Week do about that? And when did it come about?

Nate Hegyi, KUER: It began in 2002, when the Florida Legislature tried making it tougher for journalists to get public records. Journalists responded by creating a day called "Sunshine Sunday" that brought awareness to government transparency. Sunshine Sunday has since become a full week called "Sunshine Week."

KRCC: So then what do media outlets and organizations generally try to do during this week to raise awareness about the need for transparency?

Hegyi: Government watchdogs will host panel discussions, Congress will hold transparency hearings, and reporters like us talk about it on the radio.

KRCC: Has it actually been successful in making the government more transparent? The Obama administration came into power a few years after Sunshine Week began and they called themselves the most transparent administration in history. Was that accurate?

Hegyi: No, they were not the most transparent administration in history. I mean they didn't release information on the number of people killed in drone strikes for most of Obama's administration. He also made it tough for serious reporters to interview the president. For instance, The Washington Post says it wasn't allowed to interview Obama for most of his presidency.

KRCC: And does that sort of contradict the way that people think of the Obama administration in terms of transparency?

Hegyi: I think so. I think when you compare it especially to the Bush administration or the Trump administration, people thought that a democratically controlled White House would be more transparent. But in some ways it wasn't.

KRCC: Interesting. And so you mentioned the Trump administration. What about transparency now? How does it compare?

Hegyi: Well so on the surface there are some people who think that the Trump administration is very transparent. I mean we have a president that tweets his thoughts every day and a press conference recently turned into a live debate between Trump and Democrats. But in reality as a working journalist, as you well know, the Trump administration is not transparent.

KRCC: Can you give an example from your own reporting recently that illustrates that lack of transparency?

Hegyi: Yeah. So the Trump administration's Interior Department has a new strategy in dealing with public records requests. And for folks who don't know much about the Interior Department, it's the agency that acts like a landlord for the public lands across the West. So you can imagine, as Mountain West reporters, we report on them a lot. And so it's a pain when we can't get information we need to tell those stories accurately.

KRCC: Right. It is. And you've done some reporting on this new strategy in the recent past but can you give just a quick review of that reporting and what you uncovered?

Hegyi: Yeah, so there's two big things. The first one is Interior is trying to change the rules to make it tougher to get public records requests. Essentially, they're putting a cap on the number of requests they process every month and they're asking reporters and other members of the public to give them really really specific requests.

KRCC: OK. So that's the first thing, changing rules and making it a bit tougher to access those public records. What is the second thing you found?

Hegyi: Well, the second thing is they've put a politician in charge of reviewing public records requests. So, for an example, recently I wanted to get former Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke's, travel records for a trip he took to the Grand Canyon. These are things like receipts, itinerary, stuff like that. And I wanted it fast because it was for a breaking news story. And so what I have to do now is explain why I want those records and what my story is about to a Trump administration official -- in this case it's a former Republican advisor for the Koch brothers -- and that Trump official then decides whether my story is newsworthy enough to get those records quickly. And if he says no, then I've got to wait three years to get those records. So it's essentially worthless. And this strategy of changing rules and putting a politician in charge of review is pretty unprecedented.

KRCC: Yeah. Three years is a really long time to wait when you're trying to break a news story! And so obviously this is something that's frustrating for reporters in general. Are there things that news organizations or other journalists are doing about this?

Hegyi: When a new rule is proposed like this there's a public comment period and nearly 40 news organizations, including NPR, signed onto a letter expressing their concerns about the new rule. And then both Democratic and Republican senators, including Iowa Republican, Chuck Grassley, have also sent letters to Interior expressing their concerns. The rule isn't finalized yet and so we'll see if it gets gutted or scrapped because of all this bipartisan criticism.

If you want to know more about Sunshine Week, you can check it out at sunshineweek.org.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.