As a journalist, one of the scariest parts of my job is using the telephone.
Talking to a source on the phone means fumbling for your notepad, praying your voice doesn’t crack, and enduring tiresome questions like “What is that awful noise you’re making?” (It’s called “panic wheezing,” and it’s a serious medical condition.)
I much prefer to use my trusty Blackberry and email. But sadly, the law would rather I did not.
As my friends Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum pointed out this week, thanks to the “radical transparency” fad, just about every digital communication from a government official must be made public via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That includes emails, IMs, and even social media comments. I’ll poke and prod my sources to shoot me a text or enter my Twitter DMs (I have open DMs) or even just add me on Snapchat, and the answer is always the same: “I don’t want to be FOIA’d” or “If you don’t stop contacting me I will tell your ex-wife.” (This too is about FOIA, presumably.)
In this age of WikiLeaks and FOIA, everyone has to be on their toes about what they commit to writing, from five star generals to veteran journalists. As a result, we all suffer.
In my long emailing career I’ve been the victim of several embarrassing revelations, thanks to FOIA requests filed by sleazy tabloid reporters. Between Gawker making a big stink about me texting “have a super-great summer” to Ahmad Chalabi to the Intercept running clickbait about me accidentally calling Condoleezza Rice “mommy,” radical transparency often makes me too scared to do my job, knowing everything I write might be one day taken out of context.
The fact is, to get to the real story, sometimes you have to butter up a source by complimenting them, running a few of their press releases verbatim, and buying them small, thoughtful gifts such as comfortable footwear. The transparency-obsessives just don’t get that.
And if journalists like me are being hurt by transparency, think of what it’s doing to our government officials.
Let’s forget about the backroom deals and the sausage making aspect of politics that would be compromised by the harassment that constitutes requests for openness. Sure, all the gears of democracy would grind to a screeching halt and the budget would never be balanced, but let’s put it out of our minds.
I’m talking about what it would do to their personal lives.
Something that people don’t realize about our high powered officials is that there are human beings behind those job titles. The Senior Adviser For Aerial Killings or the Undersecretary for Waterboarding may seem like intimidating honorifics, but there are beating hearts that rest underneath those finely-pressed shirts.
Governing is hard work. If you don’t pull back, you’ll burn out, and it’s not like burning out when you sell insurance or work at the bong shop; people’s lives are at stake. So, for the good of the country, those in the deep state must email each other “hey you up ;p” late at night, links to Mr. Skin, or anything else that would be deemed embarrassing by our gaslighters-made-investigators and their FOIAs. If our people are too afraid to be human over email, we don’t deserve the service they provide for us.
But some people like to be watched. Knowing that the prying eyes of FOIA are on them at all time, flashy Congressmen will use state email to grandstand about sexy issues like prison reform for press attention, while clunkier but more vital issues, such as alimony reparations, get pushed to the wayside.
Finally, what will it mean when anyone can just issue a FOIA and find out what’s going on?
Well, that’s the end of veteran journalists who did things the polite and old fashioned way of simply asking and taking no for an answer. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a rudimentary understanding of bureaucratic paperwork will replace the Ron Fourniers, the Michael Barbaros, and yes, the Carl Digglers of this world. But these new journalists won’t have the sage wisdom of how both sides do good and bad things, or talk about their children. And they sure as Hell won’t have any mic drop moments in their “articles.” But the trolls will have what they’ve always wants; me in the poor house, and our government officials under constant harassment.
So go ahead and do it, FOIA fedayeen. Come and remake the world in your pimply, pestering, and hideous image. Destroy the personal lives of our politicians and the intricate details of policies you could not even possibly begin to understand the basics of. But don’t tell us we didn’t warn you.
Carl “The Dig” Diggler has covered national politics for 30 years and is the host of the Digcast, a weekly podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud. Got a question for the Dig? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet to @carl_diggler.