FOIA lessons from Gawker Editor John Cook
Last January, Ann Coulter expressed her anger about The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal-News' gun-permit map, which it assembled from public records. "I want them for Manhattan!" Coulter told Sean Hannity. "I want to know how many rich liberals with their bodyguards have gun permits."
John Cook, then the investigations editor for Gawker, was able to oblige quickly when that news hook fell from the sky. "I'd had those records in a filing cabinet for a year or more," he said in a phone call. Cook posted a list of names of New York City gun-permit holders he'd received from the New York Police Department in August 2010. The filing didn't include addresses, though Cook noted those were already online.
So now if you want to see a picture of John Cook's house, it, too, is online, thanks to an irate blogger. Cook posted the story in the late afternoon of Jan. 8, 2013, and "by the time I got home the voicemail on our phone was already full with people phoning in death threats," he said. Threats came in to the Gawker office as well. "My wife was pissed off but we were never really concerned," Cook said of the calls to his house.
"It was tactically stupid for me to do it," he said of publishing the names -- not because of the blowback but because New York's state government later tightened access to gun-permit holders' names. "I had never really expected that they would actually kill that law but sure enough they did," Cook said.
Two days after Cook published the gun-permit list, Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton announced he would be Gawker's new editor.
Lesson 1: Be flexible
Cook has been filing public-records requests since he worked as a reporter for Brill's Content in 2000 and 2001. (When he covered television for The Chicago Tribune from 2002-2005, he didn't get to flex those muscles much, just the odd FCC request.) He's got a folder on his computer with hundreds of open FOIA requests. When filing, he doesn't use online forms "because Gawker would often get hassled by FOIA officers because they weren't familiar with us." He faxes requests from his computer, on Gawker letterhead.
Now that he's running the New York-based publication, Cook said he tries to "instill that in my people: All you need is the thought, and you fire it off, and you forget about it." Send off enough requests and eventually "you start getting them back two a week," he said. "The downside of that is if they try to screw you or they deny it, it’s hard to remember and keep on them."
"It is very much understood that that is part of my beat," Gawker reporter J.K. Trotter said in a phone call, talking about records requests. Last summer, the former IvyGate editor sold Gawker a freelance story based on a FOIA request he made to the City University of New York to learn it was paying Gen. David Petraeus $200,000 to teach. Once CUNY, dazed by the bad publicity, announced it would pay Petraeus $1 instead, Cook made Trotter an offer.
Now, Trotter, says, he has about 100 open FOIAs. "I’ve learned a lot of patience," he said. "Before, when I first started ramping up, it did not make sense to me why these things took so long. But now that I’ve filed a larger variety of requests, it's much more apparent to me the diligence and pressure and the sort of agility that FOIA officers require to carry out all these weird requests."
One case in point: A records request he made to Maryland Public Television for "Any and all records and/or correspondence" relating to Lauren Ashburn's publication Daily Download, because MPT acted as a conduit for the funds Ashburn raised to launch the site. After a lawyer there told him filling the request could cost Gawker $1,000 or more (the site had offered to pay no more than $200), he agreed to pare it down to the correspondence of a dozen employees who were directly involved with the project. A month later he had documents that strongly suggested Howard Kurtz had lied about his compensation from Daily Download.
Lesson 2: Publish everything
When I asked Cook what he thought were the most Gawker-y kind of FOIAs, he said that since the "bones of the site is a New York media blog," he loved "getting emails between reporters and flacks because you get to see how the sausage is made."
(Gawker Media Editorial Director Joel Johnson told me in an email he didn't think the company's properties do "enough records digging in general, especially in the areas of finance and environmental shenanigans. It's something on which I plan to turn up the heat.")
I asked Cook why he thought such stories had the potential to pop online. "People get a kick out of seeing the original material," he said. Before digital publishing, journalists were a necessary if sometimes arrogant intermediary between readers and public records: "It was all like, I’m allowed to have it because I’m a reporter, and I’m acting as a guardian of that info and determining what’s important for you, the reader, to know about."
"I love Glenn Greenwald," Cook continued, "but he's basically keeping the same secrets the NSA was keeping" instead of "laying it all out there so people could look at it for themselves."
I asked how Gawker would have handled Edward Snowden's leaks, had he come to them instead of Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman.
"I would have read through everything," he said. "I wouldn’t have put it up without reading it, but as quickly as practicable i would have put it all out there, and published every bit of it."
Cook said the fact that The New York Times held James Risen and Eric Lichtblau's story about the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping for more than a year when "there’s no indication that disclosure would have hurt anybody" is why he "would always err on the side of the data dump."
Gawker's release in 2012 of internal auditor files from Bain Capital followed that script: "We don't pretend to be qualified to decode them in full, which is why we are posting them here for readers to help evaluate," Cook wrote. The publication launched the package with a few easily digestible stories -- e.g., "Mitt Romney Is the National Enquirer's Banker" -- "but at the end of the day the value was just putting it all out there," Cook said.
Lesson 3: Be patient
Gawker's legal department assists the site's reporters when a body denies a records request. Cook also highly recommends the work of the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, which is helping him with a lawsuit over a request for documents that show which files former President Bush and Vice President Cheney have accessed from their presidential libraries (oral arguments are due to begin next month).
But a bigger problem, especially in the news business, is time. Cook tells reporters that requesting public documents "really doesn’t work for an active story." You've got to send a lot of requests and hope that a few come back heavy.
For Cook, moving into a managerial role means he has less time to drive FOIA officers crazy (he is on the FBI's list of "vexsome filers"). The U.S. Department of State denied Cook's request for all of Hillary Clinton aide Philippe Reines' correspondence with reporters (Reines was not a shrinking violet when it came to the press).
"They gave me a 'no records,' which is obviously bullshit," Cook said. But "the time for the appeal has lapsed because I’m too busy to follow up on that stuff."
Correction: A photo caption on an earlier version of this story referred to Robyn Doolittle as "Robyn Ford."