Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #306
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, March 11, 2002

 







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PROTECTING THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT FOR FUTURE AUTHORS LETTERS
LETTERS

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PROTECTING THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT FOR FUTURE AUTHORS LETTERS

Here's a cry in the wilderness (from a lay person's point of view) that's going to add new dangers to the way books are researched and published in the all-too-near future.

Michael Ravnitzky is the Director of Database & Computer-Assisted Reporting for American Lawyer Media, a company that publishes The National Law Journal, Legal Times, The American Lawyer and more than 25 other business and legal magazines and newspapers.

Since 1980, Ravnitzky has requested thousands of documents from various agencies of the federal government, particularly the Department of Justice (DOJ), citing the provision of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that "no foreseeable harm" will come from their release. Most of these requests have been granted routinely.

Then last year, "I learned through research that the department of Justice Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA) provided weekly legislative activity reports to the Office of the Attorney General," he states. "These reports are usually 2-3 pages in length, and are essentially a description of DOJ lobbying and DOJ legislative activities."

First, Ravnitzky asked for "several" of these reports, which "were provided in their entirety," he says. But when he requested a few years' worth ("still only a couple of hundred pages in all"), nothing happened. Concerned about the silence, Ravnitzky "backstopped my request by placing an additional request for several earlier years."

The reason he asked for more was that he expected something was in the reports that the DOJ wanted to hide; and just as important, he was worried that the department's "records retention schedule," which allows for the shredding of older documents, might go into effect. (That schedule is rescinded whenever the records are requested under FOIA.)

"If I withdraw my request for these documents," he fears, "I believe they will undoubtedly be shredded."

To make a very long and tangled story short, "the roof fell in," Ravnitzky says, when "I was informed by DOJ that I was not, in their eyes, a reporter, and that they would not process my request in that category, effectively barring my otherwise ordinary request."

Ravnitzky, his editor-in-chief and the company's General Counsel insisted that although his name did not appear in by-lines, Ravnitzky's work as researcher and writer (and gatherer of information under FOIA) had always qualified him as a reporter.

No doubt the DOJ once believed that; but word had now leaked out that Ravnitzky was considered a "troublesoem requester," he says. He believes that the denial of his status as a reporter was "a way to block my request."

Justice In the Department

Ravnitzky's problem might seem an isolated episode if it weren't for the fact that the refusals started only a month after Attorney General John Ashcroft issued his now-famous October 12 memorandum to "all agencies across the executive branch of the federal government."

This directive replaced the "no foreseeable harm" standard with a new standard called "sound legal basis." According to the Department of Justice, "under the new standard, agencies should reach the judgment that their use of a FOIA exemption is on sound footing both factually and legally, whenever they withhold requested information."

Ashcroft promised these agencies, "You can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records."

So: With no clear definition of "sound legal basis" and every intention to "defend" decisions based on a "sound legal basis," reporters like Michael Ravnitzky - and he is a reporter - are left in legal limbo. If this continues unchecked, a gradual drying up of essential resources severely limit authors whose books tell us the truth about our government and its inner workings.

Ravnitzky, however, believes there is power in numbers, and has gone on the Internet to ask "any interested individual" to "request the OLA Legislative Weekly Report to the Attorney General for the years (here you specify the time period of interest) to:

Melanie Ann Pustay, Deputy Director Office of Information and Privacy Suite 570, Flag Building Department of Justice Washington, DC 20530-0001 PHONE: 202: 514-FOIA FAX: 202-514-1009

Or you can contact Ravnitzky himself in Washington, D.C., at American Lawyer Media, 202-828-0328; fax: 202-457-0718; email mjr@amlaw.com .

Whether you act or not, make no mistake: "This is the canary in the coal mine," Ravnitzky said when I called him last week. "What's happened to me is going to start happening to other reporters. It's going to be a massive suppression of FOIA requests."

So far, Ravnitzky says, that it's not reporters but "librarians and archivists" who have made these requests, so the OLA documents have at least not been shredded. Not yet.

Here's another occasion to thank our lucky stars for conscientious librarians. But we can also feel indebted to Ravnitzky: As we saw in #303, the government is protected by the USA Patriot Act to keep its movements secret, and gag orders on booksellers and librarians are only one way to enforce silence.

But Americans have their own resources, and one of them is using the Internet to expose such secretive acts. Thanks to Ravnitzky, who has insisted on speaking out through the Internet, that door is staying open.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thank you, Tony Weller, for pointing out how the increase in returns raises the price of books. It used to be when an invoice was close to being due I would anticipate a nice check. Now, I anticipate a box of returns followed by half a check. And increasingly, followed a week later by an order for the same books that were returned! Of course the books returned are damaged just enough to prevent me from reshipping them but not enough so that I don't have to take them back.

I have never had a return from an independent bookstore to which I sell directly. I also bend over backwards to accommodate them when it comes to billing. I wish more independents would order directly from me--I doubt I could stay in business if I did not have direct-to-bookstore sales and direct sales to customers through events and my web site. (BTW, thanks Tony Weller for ordering directly from me my edgy new book, Green Jell-O & Red Punch: The Heinous Truth About Utah! This book makes a good number of people in Utah squirm. As I had hoped, the independents were the first to come through in carrying it.)

At this time every year, as I do my taxes, I ask myself why I continue to publish books. I'm making less money than I did at my first job out of grad school nearly 20 years ago. I am always on the brink. But the answer is always the same. It's the joy of turning concepts into words and graphic images, of turning writers into authors. It's about spending my time in independent bookstores, talking with owners about what books might interest their customers, working with them to promote and sell books. Having customers call me or wait in line at events just to be able to say how much they enjoyed a book I publish.

Susan Vogel
Pince-Nez Press
susan@pince-nez.com


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your mention of the stem of the "big box store tide" reminded me of a news report I heard a couple of years ago (in the early morning haze of just waking) that told of how Wal-Mart, Home Depot, etc were moving toward creating "mom 'n pop" type stores in VACATED spaces in urban centers --- vacated, no doubt, because they'd been put out of business by these very same companies. I've attempted to find the source of that news report with little luck (it was most likely on NPR). There is a small bit on the trend available in Discount Store News (8/23/99). In short, the modus operandi seems to have been to drive the small business owners out in order to take over the vacated stores where Wal-Mart and others of their ilk can put on white or striped aprons and pretend to be "mom 'n pop" ...

Marsha Weber
Multnomah County Library

Holt responds: Or maybe it's Der and Mrs. Fuhrer.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thought you might like to know that Plaza Books in Sonoma (right on the historic town square) has lost its lease, (after 14 years), and has not been able to find another space so they are selling off their general stock and will only be dealing on the Internet and at book fairs.

This is a fate that has increasingly taken over the antiquarian book world in the last five years. But Plaza Books was special, one of the last real general antiquarian bookshops in California. A shop that evoked memories of a time when every community had its own "old bookshop," a place where you could freely look at old and rare books and sample the world of the past directly, and interact with a sophisticated and helpful staff. Where minds were opened not just to books but to the particularly magical world of old and rare books, many eventually destined for the labyrinths of the world's libraries.

This closure follows on the heals of the closure of Chanticleer Books, the only other antiquarian bookshop in the town of Sonoma, where the real estate market has been named frequently as one of the hottest in the nation. The owner of Plaza Books' building is putting in a wine tasting room. So another town loses a vital connection with the past, and gains a place where one can sip wine, sprayed with poison, harvested by serfs, and served by minimum wage employees.

Todd Pratum


Dear Holt Uncensored:

About your column on journalists who were paid five-figure sums to sit on Enron "advisory councils":

Arden Olsen asked: "Do we have the list of people given contributions by The Sierra Club? Or doesn't that matter because they are on the 'correct side'?"

As a lifelong leftie in environmental and social areas (not fiscal ones), I'd say: string up any journalist who accepts money from any source on any basis and then writes about them or influences coverage.

If the American Civil Liberties Union or the National Rifle Association is paying reporters to attend gun safety or gun law workshops, sit on advisory panels, etc., etc., those reporters shouldn't be reporting on anything remotely related to the NRA.

I'm not sure why it seems like there's a situational ethics problem here. The fact is that most journalists are under a tight leash when they're on staff or even freelance (like myself).

If Enron had given millions to the Democrats (wait! they did!), the fact that journalists were being paid would have the same bearing on their credibility. No journalist should accept a fee from a source.

Recently, Apple Computer rescheduled the keynote address of their CEO Steve Jobs at the Macworld Conference and Expo to a day earlier. This required a change in flight and hotel for me. Apple offered to reimburse journalists for at least the airline fee. I said, no, thanks. I don't want a check from Apple in my pocket even for $50 while I'm writing stories about their products.

Am I unique? No! The ethics are clear, but just as Andersen and various law firms allegedly mixed their financial interests and fiduciary responsibilities, people can convince themselves that they are above reproach, above corruption.

And, just by the way, I bet you can get a list of who was paid what (at least in larger amounts) from the Sierra Club, since it's a non-profit and required to make expensive public disclosures and filings. Hey, wait: Enron was supposed to, too!

Glenn Fleishman
http://glennf.com


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Apparently, the publishing business has the same problem that I see in the engineering profession. And that is to increasing corporate mindset that was mentioned. These MBAs and finance dweebs are killing us all. What are we going to do about it?

Rich Scillia
Wichita, Kansas

Holt responds: I have always thought that every day that independent booksellers keep the door open and libraries provide free service to users, something is "being done about it." Now that they're having to fight increasingly dangerous civil liberty abuses by the Justice Department, we can try to support them more, frequent them more and understand more about the difficulties that lay ahead - for them and for all of us. The same goes for teachers and independent publishers - knowing what they're up against sometimes tells us what we can "do about it."


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