Public records were once seen as the realm of a small group of journalists, academics and activists. But in the last 12 months, the paper trail of democracy—bills, budgets, emails, meeting minutes, court records, and other government-produced documents—has moved steadily into the spotlight. You might even call 2015 The Year Public Records Became Cool.
Since last year’s Sunshine Week, public documents have made news at every major level of American politics. On the national stage, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign still hasn’t outrun questions about the content and security of emails she sent from a private server during her time as Secretary of State. On the state level, emails, again, played a central role in the crisis engulfing Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder over lead-poisoned water in Flint. On the local stage, America’s third-biggest city was flipped upside down when a freelance reporter uncovered—via a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequent lawsuit—a year-old video of Chicago Police officers gunning down a black teen, Laquan McDonald, who appeared to pose no immediate threat. As the fallout gained speed, the reporter, Brandon Smith, tweeted “Murder charge. Police chief sacked. DOJ civil rights investigation. Head of police review authority quits. All this from two FOIAs.”
Public records have infiltrated pop culture, too. The plot of this year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture, Spotlight, hinges on one reporter’s ability to obtain court records revealing a key piece of the Catholic church’s sex abuse cover-up. On the small screen, one of the year’s most talked-about documentary series, Netflix’s Making A Murderer, triggered “a barrage of requests for court records” to the Manitowoc County (Wisconsin) Clerk of Courts office. In February, Jack White’s guacamole recipe went viral, thanks to a leaked public document. In December, the Freedom of Information Act was a clue on Final Jeopardy!
Now, I admit, I’m biased about all of this. I’m currently working on a book about a med-school classmate of my father convicted of prescription drug dealing, and that seven-year project hangs in the balance, depending on the outcome an FOIA lawsuit over thousands of pages of trial evidence. I’ve been trying to propel those records into the sunlight to since early 2012. And my work—from writing letters to Congress, to speaking about the case at every opportunity—has become an unpaid part-time job.
But, these days, my passion goes far beyond my book project; I’m an across-the-board public records evangelist. And I’m convinced you should be, too. On one level, public records offer us an unfiltered, primary-source view of how the world works. Check out the U.S.’s Cold War-era plans to establish martial law in the event of a nuclear attack, or more recent emails about the Navy’s cooperation with a Hollywood blockbuster—all courtesy of the Boston-based news site and records-requesting service, MuckRock—and you’ll see what I mean. Public records let us see our government with X-ray glasses.
At the same time, public records are a canvas for redaction-happy public officials. Whether the files are deadly serious (like Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantanamo Diary) or profoundly silly (like Amtrak cafeteria-car complaints), the information withheld speaks volumes about our officials’ fears and priorities.
But public records aren’t just fascinating texts for parsing by English majors and history nerds. (I’m both.) They speak to something coded in our national DNA: the idea that “we the people” can only properly govern ourselves if we’re thoroughly informed of what’s being done in our name and with our tax dollars. The U.S. was born out of public documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights) and public documents remain its lifeblood. There’s a reason politicians still hold bill-signing ceremonies: documents matter. They tell us where we’ve been, where we’re going, and who we are, right now. I recently found a New York Times article that begins, “With an estimated six billion files, the Federal Government is the largest single creator and collector of information in the world.” That was in 1975. How many files are out there now? Each one is a brush stroke in our collective self-portrait.
And so, this Sunshine Week, I’m cheering the ongoing march of public records into the mainstream. I hope more young people see reporters like Brandon Smith or VICE’s Jason Leopold and say, “I want to do that.” I hope more people read the intro to Jon Wiener’s book, Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, which states, “[G]overnment officials everywhere like secrecy … [but] the FOIA, in effect, created a notable challenge to the history of government secrecy; it provided a set of rules and procedures, officials and offices dedicated not to the collection and maintenance of secrets but rather to their release to the public.” I hope more people learn about the Obama administration’s behind-the-scenes lobbying against FOIA reform and get angry.
Because, in conversation, “democracy” is just a word. In reality, it’s usually a document.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence. He was the news editor and staff writer at The Providence Phoenix until its close, in October 2014. Since then, his work has appeared in The Atlantic, VICE, Salon, The Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @phileil.