National News

City Councilman Goes to Bat for Journalists on Information Requests

Posted May 8, 2018 11:52 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Ritchie Torres is looking for allies in his new role as head of the City Council investigations committee: journalists.

Torres, who represents the Bronx and in January was named as head of a newly reconstituted investigative unit, wants city agencies to give “professional journalists” priority in filling their Freedom of Information Law requests — and said such a policy would help the council.

“Investigative journalism complements the oversight function of the City Council,” Torres said in an interview. “The City Council would not be as effective an institution without quality journalism.”

The legislation, which would cover the City Council itself as well as mayoral agencies, would create a category of professional journalists for whom FOIL requests would be expedited. City agencies would be required to deliver the request within 10 business days. An agency that misses the deadline would have to explain in writing why it can’t deliver the records in question and when it would do so. In those cases, the records would have to be delivered within six months of the request.

Torres said the bill was inspired by reporting on the administration of President Donald Trump as well as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s legal battle to bar disclosure of emails between himself and certain advisers he has described as “agents of the city.”

“Whether it’s entangling FOIL requests in litigation or calling out journalists for public criticism, the mayor has shown himself to be unusually hostile toward journalism,” said Torres, who has also been critical of the mayor’s handling of the city’s public housing developments. “It demonstrates the need for greater priority and protection for journalists.”

When he was the public advocate, de Blasio issued a report criticizing the city’s FOIL process and response time. The report suggested that legislation require the city to report monthly on the status of all information requests to the public advocate and City Council.

But Jane Meyer, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, said he opposed Torres’ legislation.

“Members of the media shouldn’t be able to skip ahead of New Yorkers seeking information on our government,” Meyer said.

The highest number of FOIL requests during de Blasio’s tenure came in 2016 when there were 512. In 2015, there were 429 requests, and in 2017 that number dropped to 342 requests. The city did not provide information about how long it took to respond to those requests. Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government group, said response times did seem to be in a bit of a “slowdown.”

Meyer said that response times were affected during the mayor’s tenure because some information was held back during federal investigations of City Hall.

“Since the birth of FOIL and for the remainder of our great city’s history, the mayor will be criticized for FOIL response times with little regard to whether the time has gone up, down or remained the same,” Meyer added.

Despite Torres’ intentions, the legislation could hurt journalists more than it helps them, said Al Tompkins, senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit school for journalism located in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“This would force them to determine who is a journalist. In a city like New York, you have bloggers and tweeters and it would be impossible to determine who to give preference to,” Tompkins said.

The bill defines a professional journalist as someone engaged in the “gathering, preparing, collecting, writing, editing, filming, taping, or photographing of news” for a newspaper, television or radio station, website or other “professional medium” or agency that is involved in “dissemination of news” to the public.

Tompkins also questioned the proposed special treatment of journalists. “When you start giving preference or special protections to journalists, our defense that we are like everybody else starts falling away,” Tompkins added. “I really appreciate the idea, but because journalists are not licensed or sworn to duty or given any special access, we are not given privilege.”

Lerner agreed. “All citizens from every background should have the same access to the same information, and the government should respond quickly and accurately,” she said.

Torres said that giving journalists priority means that thousands of New Yorkers will have access to important information based on articles, broadcasts and social media.

“At a time when journalism has been under siege, it’s critical that the city codifies the function of journalism as the guardian of good government,” Torres said.