April 5, 2017

Media outlets team up to dig through Friday night document dump, defeat stupid opacity


Sometimes it takes a village to produce journalism in the public interest.

We’ve written before about the value of the media working together as a united front to combat the torrent of misinformation and obfuscation coming from the current administration. It looks like that is starting to happen.

On Friday night, the Trump administration dumped a boatload of financial disclosure documents. As the New York Times noted,

The White House disclosures fit an age-old pattern in Washington of dumping mountains of documents on Fridays, when normal people have left work and are beginning to enjoy their weekend. Not many are likely to be glued to their computers and television sets to track the wealth of White House officials.

After all, as Josh Lyman, the fictional White House deputy chief of staff on “The West Wing,” put it, “No one reads the paper on Saturday.”

You may remember this as the document dump that led to revelations about Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s sticky business entanglements, among other fun things. But it wasn’t just the amount of information, and the timing of it, that was a problem, as Eric Umansky, deputy managing editor of ProPublica explained on Twitter:

1/ A quick story about White House needless obfuscation, and the ways we can counter it with creative journalism…

2/ As you’ve probably seen, the White House just dropped an epic Friday Night news dump. But they did it with an extra dose of opacity…

3/ they made WH staffers’ financial disclosures “available,” but they didn’t actually post them.

4/ they required a separate request for each disclosure. And they didn’t give names. It was like playing transparency Bingo.

So Tracy Weber at ProPublica had the idea to team up with other news organizations, to request and post the documents online, and crowdsource the research. The New York Times and the Associated Press jumped, and a joint project was born. The disclosures can all be found here; if you were digging through and found something interesting—for example, that Deputy White House Counsel Makan Delrahim is an investor in a movie called “Trash Fire” (documentary y/n?)—you could (and presumably still can!) send it to them here. You can also read the Times’ liveblog of their weekend here.

While we ponder the many ethical issues uncovered in the Friday night dump, we shouldn’t forget why we know about them in the first place. While Sean Spicer might consider ProPublica a “left-wing blog,” they are actually fact-based journalism “in the public interest,” and it’s good to see them take the lead on this “instant journo collaboration to defeat stupid opacity.”

Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.