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Sunshine Week: Data forms the framework, old-fashioned reporting makes the story

By   /   March 14, 2013  /   News  /   1 Comment

Part 4 of 6 in the series SUNSHINE SPECIAL: How I got the story

Sunshine Week (March 10-16) celebrates citizen participation in government while underscoring the necessity of government transparency. Each day this week, we’ll take you behind the scenes to show you how Watchdog reporters use publicly available documents and hard work to reveal how government really works. — Editors

By Mark Lisheron | Watchdog.org

Some in the Watchdog.org family might take Earl Glynn for granted having been for so long ably, reliably and genially assisted by him.

Not me.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: Whose been to the White House>

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: Whose been to the White House>

Rumor has it that over the years, famous novelists, actors, anthropologists and political cartoonists have made pilgrimages to Overland Park, Kan., in efforts to capture the essence of the quintessential data analyst in his natural state, crunching data for Watchdog reporters.

All I had to do was give Earl a call.

Earl wanted to share with me a database he had been building from roughly 2.5 million entries in the log of visitors to the White House.

The log was made available to the public under the guise of transparency after the nonprofit good government group Judicial Watch sued in 2009 to get the records of White House visitors who had been vetted by the U.S. Secret Service. That lawsuit goes on to this very day.

What the White House surrendered, in very redacted form, were the names of visitors; the person who invited them; the number in the visitor’s party; when and where in the White House the visit took place.

Using his keen journalism training, Earl weeded out about 1.6 million entries that were clearly tourists. That left just under 900,000 visits to cull through.

Seriously. Since we were looking at Earl’s pride and joy for the first time, the question was what story or stories to tell first. Earl had noticed in several entries clusters of names of billionaire big shots at several White House gatherings. Was this president — famous for keeping his distance in public from the rich and powerful — hobbing and nobbing with them at his well-known temporary residence?

My colleague, Lee Ann O’Neal, put together a spreadsheet of names of the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in America and cross-listed it with Earl’s database.

I asked for and she delivered the same cross-list of the leaders of the 10 largest labor unions. It was while I was doing Internet research on those labor leaders that I stumbled onto Influence Explorer, a search engine put together by the Sunlight Foundation.

In addition to all sorts of great information about labor leadership, Influence Explorer listed the names of all of the top lobbyists for every major union. As I wrote in my subsequent story, “By an amazing coincidence nearly every one of the names on the lobbyist lists matched up with names of White House visitors, nearly 500 times.”

What we found was a president, contrary to his reputation, doing all sorts of political business in the White House, particularly with Big Labor. Most of it, however, was being done by the underlings, White House staff and union lobbyists.

“This grand narrative of Obama’s ambivalence toward money and power, however, collapses if you expand the visitors log search to the president’s top aides and officials,” I wrote. “The rich and generous have come to the White House hundreds of times, meeting with key officials and aides close to the president.”

Data, particularly data crippled by redaction, can only provide the framework for a story. As I analyzed our data, I shared the central findings with the people closest to the Judicial Watch lawsuit, government transparency experts and reporters and writers who have covered the president and the White House.

Their analysis of my work, comparing it to what they knew about the issue and this presidency, provided the context without which this story would have been a pile of numbers.

But without those numbers, lovingly organized and archived, we have not much more than a bunch of educated reporter’s hunches. Collaboration, at which I’m sure you have found Earl quite good, made this story possible.

To the Duke of Earl: Thanks for sharing.

Mark Lisheron is a reporter at Texas Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected]


Mark Lisheron was a former Austin-based reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • Politico

    For those of us in Kansas we know how vaulable Earl Glynn is. Would not want to be without him. Thank you for acknowledging his work.