MuckRock: A FOIA-ral History

Since 2010, we’ve tackled everything from food stamps to killer clowns - here’s what got your attention

Written by JPat Brown
Edited by Michael Morisy

With MuckRock’s birthday later this week, we thought it would be fun to take a stroll through the archives and look at the most popular pieces from each of the last six years. Several hours of cleanup and hundreds of deleted lines of junk HTML later, we’re happy to take you along for the tour.

2010

Where Massachusetts food stamp money is going

MuckRock’s first big story had as much to do the reaction to the piece as the piece itself - namely, the threat of jail time. After publishing an analysis of four years of Massachusetts’ federal assistance data, Michael Morisy received a letter from the agency saying that the information had been released in error, and unless he removed it immediately, he could face fines or imprisonment. Not bad for only our second article.

The threat drew widespread media attention in the Boston media, which may or may not have contributed to agency quietly backpedaling, saying it was more an FYI, really. Regardless, the damage was done - Michael had had his first taste of government gadfly-ry, and there was no going back.

2011

FBI: Carrier IQ files used for “law enforcement purposes”

One of the interesting quirks of FOIA journalism is that, more often than not, there’s just as big a story in the rejection of a request as in there is in the actual release of documents. That was a lesson learned early on, when Michael’s request for the FBI’s files on CarrierIQ - the controversial tech company whose diagnostic cell phone software appeared to track location and even keystrokes - was denied on grounds that releaseing that information would interfere with “law enforcement proceedings.” This seemed to imply that Carrier IQ was involved with, well, “law enforcement proceedings.”

Though the company denied any such involvement, MuckRock would revisit the topic of federal cellphone surveillance - and the ‘x in your pocket’ motif - with the launch of the Shawn Musgrave’s Spy in Your Pocket project three years later.

2012

“A very complex individual” Steve Jobs’ FBI file

While MuckRock was far from the only outlet to get their hands on the Apple founder’s file - heck, you can buy it for $260 on Amazon despite the fact that the FBI makes it publicly available on The Vault - Tom Nash’s article was one of the first to included the full file embedded inside as a searchable .pdf, so readers could skip to the parts about drugs or Job’s old friends calling him a jerk.

The popularity of the piece led to FBI write-ups becoming a staple of MuckRock editorial, and Steve Jobs became the first subject of what would become our ongoing FBI file project, now sixty-odd strong. Even in death, the man is an innovator.

2013

FBI reveals why it labeled Insane Clown Posse gang leaders

And now for something completely different. Though the Insane Clown Posse’s beef with the Bureau had drawn nationwide attention after they sued the agency for labeling their fans (known as “Juggalos” if you’re not hip on your horrorcore lingo) a “non-traditional gang,” nobody - including the ICP - could could figure out why the FBI was so decidedly not down with the clown.

That is, until Inkoo Kang’s write up of Rich Jone’s request, which revealed … some vague charges of racketeering and a serious distaste for the group’s brand of “musical horror stories.” What’s the takeway from all this? Don’t let the coulrophobic compile your National Gang Threat Assessment report.

2014

Every item distributed to local law enforcement by the Pentagon’s 1033 program over two years

Shawn was already months into his investigation of the then-relatively unknown “military gear to police” program when images of riot-gear clad cops atop mine-resistant vehicles in Ferguson thrust the issue into the nationwide discussion and accelerated the publishing process.

This piece became the opening volley in what developed into a full-fledged FOIA war with the Pentagon over what they had distributed, and to whom. The fact that Shawn took on one of the most powerful organizations on the planet and came out on top is a testament to just how powerful public records can be.

2015

Aw, Blerg! 30 Rock FCC complaints

Powerful, yes, but also funny as hell. Though MuckRock had written about FCC complaints before, usually big events like SuperBowl halftime shows or Miley Cyrus’ now-infamous VMAs performance, 30 Rock was the first major network show we got the files on, and was a great way to illustrate just how accessible FOIA can be. Plus, poorly-described Tracey Morgan hummingbird erotica is now a permanent government record, and what’s not to like about that?

The piece made the front page of Reddit - netting us more traffic that weekend than the previous four years combined - and spawned our Must-Seethe TV project.


On behalf of MuckRock editorial, we want to thank you for an amazing six years, and look forward to digging even deeper in the years to come. If you have any ideas for articles or project, feel free to email us at info@muckrock.com.


Image via Wikimedia Commons