Meta Post 3: Thoughts on this Project, FOIAs, and Free Speech
So it turns out that I have some detractors...
FOIA Gras is a free newsletter run by Tom Hayden (FOIA GRAS LLC) that explores various topics in local Evanston Governance, especially around School District 65 (Evanston/Skokie). I publish and share all my data and reports. Subscribing is free, so please subscribe or share!
Every once in a while, I like to mull the status of this project. Am I doing the right thing? Should it continue? Is it a valuable use of time?
Request for Op-Eds
First, some housekeeping. I’d like to give space for the following:
If I mess something up or do bad journalism, I’d like to have the opportunity to correct the record. I’m just a random citizen journalist and not formally trained in any way. If you find inaccuracies in my posts, please email me: email@example.com. I’d like to think I’m receptive to errors in my writing. Journalism and writing is hard and I’m doing my best.
It turns out a lot of people disagree with my approach. Am I wasting District resources and time? Is this a “weaponization” of FOIA? Is there a better way to achieve the same goals? I would like to publish a story by someone other than me, even if you use the entire post dunking on the project. If you are that person, please reach out to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Intent of FOIA & Citizen Journalism
One thing that I continually remind myself of is Section 1 of the Illinois FOIA Act:
Sec. 1. Pursuant to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of government, it is declared to be the public policy of the State of Illinois that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees consistent with the terms of this Act. Such access is necessary to enable the people to fulfill their duties of discussing public issues fully and freely, making informed political judgments and monitoring government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest.
One of the challenges we face in 2023 is that local news is all but dead. I think 10, 20 or 30 years ago, there would be many more people, getting paid, to ask the questions I am asking. That era is long gone. Tribune Tower has been converted to upscale condos for God’s sake! They even sold off the archives on Ebay!
Evanston is fortunate to have local blogs here, but they’re playing a longer game than I am. Plus, I’m not sure they have the resources to do the type of investigative journalism that I am (attempting, maybe poorly) with this project. So at this point, it is kind of up to us, random people to take the ball and run with it. I don’t love that, but if we want to have an educated polity, someone has to do this.
Why Don’t You Write Nicer Things?
One question I’ve been asked a few times is: why don’t you write about the positive things happening in the District? The answer is: that’s not really what I’m doing here. Most governments, including District 65, have considerable budgets for communications and PR. If you want to read those kinds of stories, you can follow their newsletters.
I used to work for facebook, way back in the early days and the company thought about journalists in two ways; there were journalists who would always write nice stories because they valued access and there were journalists (at that time, TechCrunch) that we feared because they valued information. I watched in real-time as facebook played literally every news source, eventually including TechCrunch like a fiddle. The result? There was virtually no serious critical reporting of facebook in the pre-2016 era. It was pretty depressing to watch and I believe is responsible for the whole 2016 election fiasco mess. There was literally nobody holding them accountable and the place ran amok.
This is not a project designed to make money or gain access. The intent of this project is to resolve what feels like tension in our community. People are leaving and it depresses the heck out of me because I like it here. How can we resolve this? My theory: transparency and accountability.
Disclosing My Politics
Lastly, I want to discuss my own personal politics and get this out in the open. I am trying, as best as possible, to keep politics off this blog.
I’m a lifelong Democrat (pull the Cook County voter file for proof)
I believe in the District 65 Equity Project and I think it’s commendable they wrote their own curriculum. I am in favor of hiring more people to do this hard work of writing curriculum and we should be defending this on a national stage.
I think we should continue to invest in closing the opportunity gap by direct investment in student achievement by retaining, recruiting, and hiring the best teachers and putting them in front of the right students.
I’m in favor of the Evanston Reparations Project and think it has potential to be a good opportunity to right some wrongs. I believe this project has been very well-run, transparent, and accountable.
I strongly support living in a diverse and vibrant community.
I’m in favor of all the standard liberal causes: gun regulations, healthcare reform, LGBT rights, and so on.
I live in Evanston because I like what is going on here. However, I don’t personally believe the leadership is living up to the ideals of our community. The only way to know if that is true is to see the records firsthand. That is why I am doing this project.