MuckRock’s Approach Is Working, One FOIA at a Time
On July 4, the Freedom of Information Act turns 50, and yet our government is more secretive than ever. One Boston journalism startup is trying to change that—and their revolutionary approach to transparency is working, one public records request at a time. —By Philip Eil
Massachusetts is the birthplace of the American Revolution. But lately, the “We the People” spirit has been conspicuously lacking when it comes to government transparency.
In 2015, the Bay State received an “F” for public-records practices from the Center for Public Integrity. And now, for the second year in a row, Massachusetts has been nominated for a Golden Padlock Award—basically, a Razzie for government transparency, awarded by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a nonprofit based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Last year, IRE declared the Massachusetts State Police the most secretive government agency in the nation, due to its lengthy rap sheet of public records delays, redactions, and exorbitant request fees. On its way to the award, the MSP edged out the U.S. Department of Defense, which was nominated for withholding information about former Army soldier Robert Bales’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians in 2012. This year, IRE announced that Secretary of State William Galvin topped the list of the 2016 Golden Padlock nominees. Among the transgressions they cited: charging the Globe $6,600 for access to State Police logs, and blocking the release of names of Boston Police officers who’d been caught driving drunk.
But while our state public records woes may be headline-worthy, they’re not isolated incidents—not when we’re living in an age of unprecedented government secrecy. U.S. citizens are having more difficulty than ever obtaining public records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law that celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. The Obama administration has touted itself as “the most transparent administration in history,” but its actions speak louder than words: Earlier this year, the U.S. government set a record for denying FOIA requests, withholding or completely censoring files in 77 percent of cases, according to a 2016 report.
Still, there are rays of sunshine parting the gloom—like MuckRock, a Boston-based hybrid news outlet and web service that helps journalists and other concerned citizens file public-records requests with state and national agencies. Since its launch in 2010, MuckRock has become one of the country’s largest independent libraries of government documents, releasing its millionth document this past May. The site features everything from George Carlin’s FBI file, to the federal government’s Cold War–era emergency plans for declaring martial law, to a color-coded map of Massachusetts KENO sales figures, arranged by zip code. And MuckRock is also an active—and feisty—news organization that has compelled the Boston Police Department to suspend its automated license-plate-scanning program, sued the CIA for denying records requests, and spearheaded a citizen-driven “Drone Census” to expose how, across the country, public officials are shelling out public funds for remote-controlled sky toys.
That steady stream of original reporting and primary-source material has long made MuckRock a big name among government-transparency nerds, but it’s increasingly breaking out of this niche role. Its work has been cited by the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, the Daily Show, the Rachel Maddow Show, VICE, and Mother Jones. It even got a cameo appearance in RailwayAge, where, in response to a cache of heavily redacted Amtrak documents obtained by MuckRock, an editor blasted the carrier for “buying black markers in carload lots to obliterate customer complaints from prying public eyes.”
Indeed, while taxpayer-funded activity in Massachusetts has spiraled further into secrecy in recent years, MuckRock has climbed, document by document, into the same orbit as transparency superstars such as Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. And it’s done so without the same legal blowback or accusations of treason. “We’re like the anti-leak,” company cofounder Michael Morisy says. “As a citizen, you have a right to ask your government a question, and they’re legally required to respond.”
The company’s 24-year-old web developer, Allan Lasser, puts it another way: “We’re sticking it to the man, but in a really polite way that you could take home to your mom.”
To tell the full story of MuckRock, you have to tell the story of the Freedom of Information Act, the legal mechanism the site most frequently uses to pry free government records. And to tell the story of FOIA, you have to go back to the ’50s, a time when paranoia gripped the nation’s capital and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunts ruined careers. In 1954, frustrated with the culture of secrecy that pervaded Washington, a newly minted California congressman named John E. Moss embarked on a crusade to empower American citizens to question authority. In his first term, he introduced a bill designed to draw back the blinds on the federal government and flood the world’s most powerful democracy with sunlight.
It wasn’t until 12 years later—on July 4, 1966—that a reluctant Lyndon B. Johnson signed Moss’s bill into law; it would come to be known as the Freedom of Information Act. The new law didn’t guarantee the release of all government files; there were built-in exemptions barring the release of things such as military secrets and info that would violate a citizen’s privacy. But the premise was revolutionary: “Any citizen may see any government document in the files,” the Associated Press marveled when the law took effect in 1967. Though LBJ was no big fan of FOIA, this act became one of his greatest legacies.
Fast-forward to 2009, when two recent Cornell grads—Michael Morisy and Mitch Kotler—were toying with startup ideas. Morisy, who had served as managing editor of the Cornell Daily Sun, was now working at the Newton-based industry publication TechTarget. Kotler, a code-fluent engineer, had moved to the area for a job at a semiconductor startup. As a journalist, Morisy had spent time combing through decades’ worth of Pulitzer Prize–winning stories, and he had noticed that many of them were based on public documents. He also knew that as more newspapers shuttered their investigative bureaus, journalists needed more efficient ways to conduct in-depth reporting. And then there was the glaring fact that LBJ’s law and its state-level analogs were woefully outdated. The Department of Defense was still accepting records requests via fax machine. The Massachusetts Public Records Law hadn’t been significantly updated since the early 1970s.
So Morisy and Kotler set out to produce a streamlined tool for requesting government documents. Though the moniker “MuckRock” evokes gritty, old-school journalism, the pair wanted their FOIA tool to be so user-friendly that it would appeal to regular citizens, not just veteran records-requesters such as academics, journalists, and activists. The website would provide request templates for users to fill out for the info they were seeking. It would maintain an ever-expanding database of local, state, and federal government offices, so users didn’t have to worry about where to send their requests. It would automatically send follow-up notes on a user’s behalf if an agency were slow to respond. And if the request produced responsive documents—say, memos outlining the dress code for employees at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—the site would host them online for anyone to see. The cofounders set the price at $20 for five requests.
By early 2010, muckrock.com was live, and in August, the site’s news arm—which highlights the results of records requests—published its first story: Morisy’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” which sifted through animal-control registration documents to report the most popular dog names in Somerville. (The top three: Bella, Max, and Buddy.)
Things soon got much more serious. The site’s next story investigated Massachusetts’ food stamp program, revealing a $319 million spike statewide in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reimbursements between 2006 and 2009. The article turned heads—especially within the government. Morisy soon received a note from the state Department of Transitional Assistance warning that the data had been erroneously released, and that if he didn’t take his story down, he could face jail time.
This bureaucrat bullies-versus-blogger showdown turned out to be better marketing than the company’s founders could have imagined. The Boston Phoenix hailed MuckRock as “First Amendment rock stars,” while the Worcester Telegram & Gazette editorial board wrote, “Mr. Morisy is doing exactly what conscientious citizens can and should use the Internet for.” Before year’s end, MuckRock received a $5,000 grant from the Sunlight Foundation, which helped the company purchase its most expensive piece of equipment: a high-speed scanner. From there, user-fee revenues grew, grant funding continued to pour in, and, when the Globe opened its cavernous, vacant former classified-ad call center for local startups to use for free, MuckRock was one of the first companies on the guest list.