MuckRock’s Approach Is Working, One FOIA at a Time
Then in December 2014, MuckRock landed a blockbuster. The previous summer, in the wake of the Ferguson riots, national outlets such as the Washington Post had explored the militarization of the police. But MuckRock helped push the story further, teaming up with news startup the Marshall Project (helmed by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller) to extract information on the Pentagon’s practice of handing out surplus weapons to local police departments from the Defense Logistics Agency.
MuckRock’s report was filled with mind-boggling revelations: Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife received “a small aircraft, 96 night vision goggles, 67 gun sights, and seven M-14 rifles.” The Detroit Public Schools Police Department inherited six bomb disposal robots. Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, a sleepy hamlet along the shore of Lake Michigan, acquired 10 helicopters, a mine-resistant armored vehicle, and two Humvees. And the site’s state-by-state breakdowns were perfectly teed up for small-town news outlets to present stories to their audiences. From South Dakota to Staten Island, reporters were tipping their caps to a news organization that, just a few years prior, was based off a laptop in Morisy’s Somerville apartment.
MuckRock’s current office is located at the end of a lonesome hallway inside the Globe’s airport terminal–size headquarters in Dorchester. Take a wrong turn inside the building, and you might end up in a vast, concrete-floored staging area where gigantic spools of newsprint are stored. MuckRock’s space, which was formerly home to the Globe West team, is about the size of a two-car garage. Its décor could be best described as “late-1970s newsroom”: drop ceilings, fluorescent lights, heavy-looking desks, rows of metal filing cabinets, a coffee maker burbling in the corner. On one corkboard hangs a piece of paper that looks vaguely like abstract expressionist art but, up close, reveals itself as a heavily redacted document from the National Security Agency. Only a single sentence is legible: “These are sobering findings.”
Aside from the symbolism of a digital startup nestled inside the rapidly emptying shell of an aging print titan, a couple of things stand out when you peer behind MuckRock’s digital curtain. One is just how young everyone is. MuckRock now has six employees, and, at 32, Morisy is the elder statesman. His cofounder Kotler is 31, and other members of the team—editor J. Patrick Brown, reporter Beryl Lipton, and developer/designer Allan Lasser—are younger than that.
There’s also a striking absence of anger or cynicism at MuckRock, which is somewhat rare among investigative journalists. When the Intercept launched in 2014, with the iconoclastic blogger Glenn Greenwald at the helm, the site described its mission as producing “fearless, adversarial journalism.” They were looking for a fight.
But one of MuckRock’s most widely circulated stories, the trove of complaints from the cafeteria at CIA headquarters unearthed in 2014, had the surprising effect of humanizing government bureaucrats. (Sample quote from a CIA employee: “I’ve sent comments about the jazz salads being misadvertised before, but yesterday takes the cake.”)
Conversations with MuckRock staffers can feel that way, too. “I think government officials, by in large, are like anybody else,” Morisy says. “They want to come in, be good at their job, go home, and spend time with their family…it’s very rare that you see people that are outright corrupt or evil.” In a separate interview, Lipton told me, “I tell people that we’re not antigovernment, we’re pro functional government.”
This isn’t to say the company goes easy on public officials—it simply lets the documents do the talking. MuckRock has produced a mountain of embarrassing paperwork, ranging from the Department of Education’s purchase of hundreds of handguns for its Inspector General agents, to the U.S. military’s commissioned report on extrasensory perception in dogs, to the nearly $2 million the U.S. Marshals Service spent on branded scarves, holiday ornaments, pillows, and teddy bears. In February the site reported on a $660 million FOIA-fee estimate from the Department of Defense.
With material like this, who needs to vow to be “adversarial”?
The Freedom of Information Act has not aged well. By many accounts, the law is limping and wheezing its way to its 50th birthday on July 4. Some would say the law has stopped working altogether.
In 2015 Associated Press general counsel Karen Kaiser testified before a U.S. Senate committee that, “We are witnessing a breakdown in the system—both on the procedural front, in the form of continual delays and agency nonresponsiveness, and on the substantive front, with the vast overuse of exemptions and redactions.” In early 2016 Syracuse University’s FOIA Project reported that the number of FOIA lawsuits—when requesters get so fed up with a response that they decide to sue—had hit an all-time high, according to a 15-year analysis.
In full disclosure, I am the plaintiff in one of those FOIA lawsuits. Since 2015 I’ve been suing the Drug Enforcement Administration over its nonrelease of evidence from a major prescription drug-dealing trial, in 2011. MuckRock has written about my case twice, including a 2014 interview headlined, “Phil Eil’s FOIA Nightmare.” (Second disclosure: In 2014, when I was news editor at the Providence Phoenix, I was one of a number of reporters who received a free trial membership with MuckRock, which included a handful of free FOIA requests. I have since become a paying user of the service.)
But I’m far from the only guy with FOIA woes. Browse the Internet, and you’ll find FOIA horror stories of all kinds: ProPublica’s “The TSA Releases Data on Air Marshal Misconduct, 7 Years After We Asked,” the Washington Post’s “Reporter Says Pentagon Agreed to Give Up Docs if He Never Submits Another FOIA Request,” VICE’s “My Dad’s Long, Frustrating Battle with the US Government to Learn About His Own Kidnapping.” Last year, after the New York Times reported on attempts by West Point officials to thwart records requests about concussions, one USA Today reporter tweeted, “Basically, you’re right to be cynical about #FOIA.”
In this context, it’s easy to see why MuckRock has traction: It has improved public-records requesting in ways that state and federal officials have been unable or unwilling to do themselves. The company has digitized the process, both on the requesting and receiving end. It keeps a public record of interactions with agencies. (Former staffer Shawn Musgrave’s email exchange with gay-marriage-license-refusing Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis was immortalized in the February issue of Harper’s.) It recently added a crowdfunding option, for when fees exceed the requester’s budget. In a sense, the company is doing for public records what TurboTax did for taxes or Change.org did for petitions: making it easier to be an engaged citizen.
And people are taking note. It took the company five years to release 500,000 pages of government documents, and then just 13 months—from April 2015 to May 2016—to release its second half-million. Morisy says MuckRock’s revenue and traffic have doubled every year since 2010. The company is currently in the process of hiring another part-time staffer. And with the Globe’s move to a new headquarters in downtown Boston next year rapidly approaching, MuckRock is leaving the nest. This summer, they’re setting up shop in a new Cambridge coworking space.
Of course, no one’s expecting a government-transparency site to become the next BuzzFeed. But MuckRock has leveled up—and safeguarded its future—in a big way, by securing 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in June. Now, MuckRock’s supporters can make direct donations to the site in addition to filing requests and contributing to project crowdfunds—and even the crowdfunding is tax-deductible. “MuckRock has never been in a better position organizationally, financially, or … structurally,” Morisy wrote in his announcement.
There are signs that the Bay State is trying to shake its Golden Padlock–worthy status. Just this past June, Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill overhauling Massachusetts public records law—the first major update to this law since 1973. The revamp is an attempt to drag the public-records-request process into the digital age, specifying that government agencies must provide requested documents within a “reasonable timeframe” and for a “reasonable fee.”
But as long as government transparency in Massachusetts—and the nation—continues to uphold its heretofore abysmal track record, there’s a market for a service that bridges the gap between the dreary reality of modern-day records requesting and the lofty ideals that public-records laws are supposed to represent. “I think public records [are] a really great reminder to every agency that, ultimately, your boss—the one who’s looking over your shoulder and looking at your work—that’s the people who are paying taxes, who are voting you into office,” Morisy says.
On July 4, 2013—about three years after MuckRock’s launch—Morisy published a post reminding MuckRock readers that the holiday actually marks two birthdays: the USA’s and FOIA’s. “So, as you go out and enjoy all the amazing liberties America affords you, take a moment to exercise them and file a request of your own,” he wrote. “It’s the patriotic thing to do.”
Postscript: On June 30—five months before the end of Barack Obama’s presidency and less than a week before FOIA’s 50th birthday—the president signed a long-awaited FOIA-reform bill into law. To mark the occasion, the White House released a fact sheet titled “New Steps Toward Ensuring Openness and Transparency in Government.” It remains to be seen how significant these reforms will be, but for now, MuckRock will continue to make the process of requesting public records a little less Sisyphean—or least feel that way.