Historians-and the rest of us-benefit from open public access

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By Doug Clifton

The Acknowledgement section at the back of a book often makes for interesting reading. In it the reader gains some insight into the challenges the author faced and an idea of who helped over come them. Librarians win a lot of accolades as do fellow scholars and custodians of historic papers. Those types lighten the author’s research load.

Spouses neglected during the literary gestation seem to get praise in direct proportion to how long the project went on. Agents and editors get a fair share of praise and life-long friends are hailed for the candid criticism they offered.

But it’s the rare author who is moved to thank a law firm for help in winning an FOI battle. James McGrath Morris did just that in the middle of his four pages of thank-yous to those who helped him through his struggle to unravel the life of newspaper legend Joseph Pulitzer. One chapter in Pulitzer’s storied life was his battle with President Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt, who saw construction of the Panama Canal as one of the principal jewels in his crown of achievements, was enraged by stories in Pulitzer’s World that Roosevelt cronies had improperly profited from the canal project. Roosevelt ordered his Justice Department to pursue criminal libel charges against Pulitzer and his reporters and editors.

Morris’s detailed telling of that unprecedented use – most would say misuse – of Presidential power was made possible by the pro bono work of Ropes & Gray, the law firm that pressed and won the FOI case that opened the records of this sordid chapter in American history.

We generally think of the Freedom of Information laws as enabling the press and interested public to part the curtains of government secrecy. But the work of historians is enriched by it as well. If it’s true that ignorance of history dooms us to repeat it, shrouding it in secrecy virtually guarantees repeating it. Thanks to FOIA and the historians that use it we have a fighting chance at enlightenment.

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