While journalistic skill and technique are essential for writing a good investigative article, we often take it for granted that journalists have access to the information they need to write complex news stories. Without publicly available data, much of our news would not be possible. We’ve been looking at investigative articles as part of an ongoing series called “Back to the Source” for the last several months. Now we’ve decided to amp it up a bit and make redacted visuals to explicitly demonstrate how little the public would know without laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available.
In honor of Sunshine Week we decided to create “The News Without Transparency.” We took original investigative articles and manually blacked out all the information that would not be known without existing transparency measures. It is worth taking a look at just how little we would know.
Some examples we found notable are below, and the ongoing series is available here.
The News Without Transparency: Military Defense Contractors, Lobbyists Support Mrs. McKeon
Military defense contractors and lobbyists are rushing to support the wife of Congressional House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon in her bid for California state assembly, according to a Salon article in early February.
This article would not have been possible without public access to campaign finance and lobbying data.
The article reports that in the first few months of fundraising, Patricia McKeon was able to collect $19,200 from defense contractors or their lobbyists. This includes $3,000 from Lockheed Martin – a company currently locked in a battle to maintain funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet. It also includes donations from lobbying firm Beau Boulter LLC, which lobbies on behalf of Proxy Aviations, and Bruce Leftwich, a DC-based government affairs specialist.
The California Secretary of State’s website provides campaign finance data for all candidates running for public office, including Patricia McKeon’s. The data can be searched by contributions received or made, expenditures made, late and high dollar contributions, and late independent expenditures. The contributions listed on Mrs. McKeon’s disclosure page include the following…
The News Without Transparency: U.S. Approved Business With Blacklisted Nations
The New York Times published an article in December 2010 investigating the U.S. government’s approval of American companies doing business with countries blacklisted for sponsoring terrorism, such as Iran. According to the article, the Treasury Department has granted almost 10,000 licenses for business deals involving these blacklisted nations, some of which were impacted by political influence.
In addition to good reporting, the public availability of data was essential to making this such a meaningful investigative piece. That said, much of the underlying data for this article was hard to obtain, and the article itself says that even after the Times filed a FOIA request, “The process took three years, and the government heavily redacted many documents. . . ”
We investigated and have highlighted what data is publicly available and what data isn’t, but in some cases can be obtained through FOIA.
The article highlights how much less business the United States did with Iran than China or Europe did, pointing out that “…in the first quarter of this year, 0.02 percent of American exports went to Iran.” The U.S. Census Bureau provides monthly and annual datasets detailing American foreign trade, which provides information such as the data point used in the article. The annual report for 2010 is available here and can be viewed as a PDF or as a zip file for text or excel formats.
The News Without Transparency: Obama Rewards Campaign Contributors
An in-depth analysis of Obama’s 2008 campaign contributors conducted by iWatch News in 2011 determined that in certain circumstances major bundlers ended up receiving appointments to key White House positions, invitations to White House events, and stimulus money awarded through contracts. This analysis required a high level of investigative journalism skill, but would not have been possible without public access to several data sources.
The iWatch analysis frequently returns to the story of Donald H. Gips, a Colorado businessman and bundler for Obama. His story provides a useful frame for illustrating the data sources that provided essential information for this piece.
The article states that Gips bundled over $500,000 for Obama in 2008. Presidential candidates are not required to report their bundlers, but both Obama and McCain chose to do so in 2008. The Center for Responsive Politics makes available the list from 2008 as well as a list of 2012 bundlers for those candidates who have chosen to disclose. While the candidate usually only discloses the name of the bundler, CRP adds value by including additional information such as the total amount contributed, the name of the bundler, the city and state, and employer. The information also contains the total amount the bundler has contributed him or herself to the specified candidate since 1990. Bundlers are additionally broken down by industry. A search for Gips shows that he bundled over $500,000 in 2008 and has individually donated $32,391 since 1990.
The News Without Transparency: $52 Steaks on Menu as AT&T Feted Lawmakers During T-Mobile Push
The proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger dominated the news in Washington last fall. It caused quite the stir, with numerous outlets reporting on AT&T’s massive lobbying efforts to push through the merger. Bloomberg was one such news outlet, reporting a story of expensive steaks and ‘lobbyist’s libations’ in early September. The story focused on the numerous swanky fundraisers AT&T was hosting as well as their generous campaign donations to key lawmakers.
This was a detailed investigative piece that involved a good deal of skilled journalism. It would not have been possible without public access to campaign finance data and lobbying disclosure information.
The article begins describing the lavish fundraisers AT&T had been hosting for lawmakers, citing Sunlight’s Party Time data. Sunlight’s Party Time data is free and available for anyone to use. We manually collect fundraiser and event invitations and put them online. They are searchable by a variety of of criteria including committee, leadership PAC, beneficiary, host, and venue.