Media Lawsuits Seeking Government Records Jump Under Trump

beSpacific 2018-08-02

“The number of lawsuits filed by news organizations and reporters to obtain federal government records was up sharply during the first year and a half of the Trump Administration. On an annual basis, news media Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filings rose above 100 for the first time. This is a dramatic increase compared with levels during the presidency of George W. Bush and the first term of President Obama when the annual number of media FOIA suits usually fluctuated year-by-year between 10 and 20 filings. While FOIA suits brought by nonprofit organizations and others has also grown during this same period, news media lawsuits seeking federal government records have grown the fastest, and during the first year and a half of the Trump Administration now account for 10.7 percent of all FOIA filings. This compares with only a 3.1 percent share filed by the news media during the first term of President George W. Bush. This research, conducted for the FOIA Project by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, found a total of 91 separate news organizations and 161 reporters have brought lawsuits challenging federal government withholding since President Bush assumed office. Most of these filed a single suit. In fact, almost three out of every four (73%) news organizations and reporters on the list filed only a single suit during this entire period. A total of 12 percent filed 2 suits. And only 15 percent filed as many as three or more suits. However, these 15 percent – 38 news organizations and reporters-accounted for fully 57 percent of all FOIA suits.

Leading this list – now updated through June 2018 – was The New York Times Company with 55 suits filed. In second place was Jason Leopold, now with VICE News, who filed 46 lawsuits during this period. The Center for Public Integrity was in third place with 26 suits. Four other news organizations made the top 10 list of the most frequent filers. Buzzfeed, Inc. was in fifth place with 15 FOIA suits. Tied for seventh place with 8 lawsuits each was the Associated Press, Daily Caller News Foundation, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Additional reporters also made the top 10 list. Beyond Jason Leopold, the most active reporters were – in fourth place – New York Times reporter Charles Savage, and in sixth place former New York Times reporter and TRAC’s co-director, David Burnham. Tied for tenth place was science writer and New York University journalism professor, Charles Seife, and Politico reporter, Josh Gerstein. The study also found that the number of news reporters filing lawsuits has rapidly increased since 2000 – from 34 reporters during the Bush years, to 86 during Obama’s two terms. And thus far during the Trump presidency already 63 different named reporters have filed suits. In contrast, the number of news organizations bringing lawsuits has dwindled – from 52 media outlets during the eight years of Bush’s presidency, to 44 during both of President Obama’s presidential terms. So far only 17 news organizations have filed suit since President Trump took office although each has filed on average 4.2 separate FOIA suits. This is up from an average of 1.5 suits each during the Bush years and 2.4 suits during the Obama period. So while fewer news organizations are active filers, they are each filing more suits.

  • To read the full report with our detailed findings, including how the top ten media filers have changed over time, go to: http://foiaproject.org/2018/08/02/media-foia-lawsuits-jump-under-trump/
  • The FOIA Project has also updated through June 2018 its News Media list which provides a directory of the news organizations and reporters who have filed FOIA lawsuits. This interactive tool not only identifies each media organization and reporter who has brought suit since October 2000, but provides useful details (including court documents) on each suit they have filed: http://FOIAproject.org/plaintiff-media-list/