Inside Public Integrity

Published — October 28, 2021

FOIA and fact checking: Essential to investigative reporting

Peter Newbatt Smith

A conversation with Public Integrity’s Peter Newbatt Smith.

Introduction

The Center for Public Integrity is one of the oldest nonprofit news organizations in the country, and Research Editor Peter Newbatt Smith is its longest-serving employee.

He’s at the center of two critical aspects of Public Integrity’s investigative journalism — overseeing the newsroom’s rigorous fact checking process, and pressing government agencies to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

Over the past 20 years, Public Integrity has gone to court to force FOIA compliance more than any news organization besides the New York Times and Buzzfeed.

That’s largely due to Smith, who joined the staff in 1999. In addition to his research and fact checking role, he’s a practicing attorney who has filed suit numerous times to press reporters’ attempts to get government agencies to release documents and data the public should have the right to see.

In the last couple of years, he has filed lawsuits on Public Integrity’s behalf against the Small Business Administration for Paycheck Protection Program records and most recently against the South Dakota National Guard for records about their privately-funded mission to the U.S. southern border.

Smith received an undergraduate degree in medieval history from Harvard and his law degree from American University. 

We asked about what the job is like and highlights from his time at Public Integrity:

You’ve been at Public Integrity longer than anyone else on staff. In what ways has the work or the organization changed, and in what ways is it still like the early days?

When I started here in 1999, we were really just starting to use the Internet in our work. We had a website that told the public about our organization, but we were still publishing almost all of our reporting in printed books or monographs. I believe it was later in 1999 or 2000 that we started regularly publishing our news articles on the website.

What hasn’t changed is our approach to journalism. Public Integrity has always strived for absolute accuracy in our reporting, along with fairness and balance. And one of the things setting us apart is our ability and willingness to devote months, sometimes a year or more, to a reporting project when that’s what’s required.

Are there any projects or examples of Public Integrity’s impact over the years that are particularly meaningful or memorable for you?

The most memorable in recent years was our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2019 for release of documents related to Ukraine that were relevant to the impeachment of President Donald Trump. We had a couple well-timed and well-targeted records requests to the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and this was the rare time that I sought a preliminary injunction — that was necessary if we were going to get the documents before the impeachment proceedings were over. The judge didn’t need much persuading and agreed with us that it was urgent, ordering that the agencies release the documents in December 2019.

Any near-miss stories or other cautionary tales you can share to reinforce the importance of the research, fact-checking and legal review work that Public Integrity investigations are subjected to? 

When I’m fact-checking, it’s fairly common for me to correct a number or suggest some wording that’s more precise. But I recall one story, probably one in a series about significant political donors. This one was about Donald Trump, a few years before he was running for office himself. There was a paragraph about some recent contributions to Democratic candidates that seemed out of character (though Trump’s political giving had been bipartisan earlier on). When I looked at the donation records, I saw that they came from a different person named Donald Trump, with a different address in New York state, and a different occupation. I generally see articles after they’ve been edited, so that’s one of the few times when I’ve actually cut a whole paragraph from a story.

How unusual is it for a newsroom to have an attorney in the newsroom and to go to court as often as Public Integrity does to enforce the Freedom of Information Act? 

For an organization of our type and size, it may be unique. Of course, there are attorneys at a few large newspapers that do significant FOIA work, and there are advocacy groups that bring many lawsuits. We cooperate with them, when we can. But I’m not aware of another nonprofit journalism organization that has an attorney in-house working on FOIA requests and litigation. Working closely with our reporters, I can help them before they file a records request, while we’re waiting for a response, and when we decide to go to court.

Because Public Integrity is a nonprofit that doesn’t accept advertising or charge readers for our journalism, we rely in a significant way on donations from readers. What’s your pitch for why people reading this should support Public Integrity’s work?

Public Integrity now focuses on reporting about inequality, and I can’t think of a more important issue. Our society won’t be able to bridge our political divisions, and we can’t live in right relation with our neighbors, without addressing these issues. The people at Public Integrity are committed to thoughtful examination of inequality, along its many dimensions, using our expertise in investigative journalism. Your support is necessary to make our work sustainable. 


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