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Down the Rabbit Hole that Exposed Dangerous Truths: The Amazing Mission of Ernie Lazar

With all of the attacks on American media –ranging from political leaders encouraging their followers to hate reporters to those who’ve killed them for stories they didn’t like – I often worry about what would happen if a free press ceased to exist. I can only hope there will always be citizen journalists quietly working in the shadows to dig up and expose truths people need to know about. Will the next Ernie Lazar please stand up?

Ernie Lazar was to the Freedom of Information Act what Hank Aaron was to home runs, what Tom Brady was to throwing touchdown passes, what the Beatles were to number one hits. Unless you’re a worshiper of uber-researchers, or unless you’ve written a significant historic book documenting the Red Scare of the 1950’s, you’ve probably never heard of Ernie Lazar. They sure heard of him at the FBI, though.

Lazar earned his living being a disc jockey and owning a record store in San Francisco. But his real passion -- his obsession, really -- was leveraging the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to access government records so he could expose far-out conspiracies and extremists’ activities. FOIA was passed more than 50 years ago to provide consumers with a streamlined way to obtain declassified government records. But believe me, it’s not easy to see a single FOIA request through from start to finish; government agencies can find a myriad of reasons to deny you, ways to stonewall you, and charge more money than necessary to email you the files that already exist. So you can just imagine how bureaucrats in government agencies would roll their eyes when they got to work in the morning to find Ernie in their inbox, asking for another batch of records. Yea, because he is said to have filed 9,000 FOIA requests over the past 30 years. He sought no stardom for himself, but generously posted some 600,000 pages of his findings online. He was an absolute gift to nonfiction authors who quoted him in dozens of books about right wing conspiracies, the McCarthy era, the FBI targeting “student radicals,” and the dogma put forth by the John Birch Society.

After Lazar died of kidney disease in November of 2022, the Washington Post said that to researchers, Lazar was a “figure of heroic proportions,” who “became a kind of Zen master of the Freedom of Information Act.”

Ernie Lazar landed on my radar screen this week, when the FBI added a file to its “Vault/Recently Added” website called “Ernie Lazar, Part 01.” (That must mean there are 8,999 more files yet to come, but why wait? Lazar posted everything relevant he found to his own site.) The file posted this week is over 400 pages long, and it details the bureau’s investigation of a man named Emmanuel Josephson, a New York eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist who forced his political beliefs and his self published books on even those who didn’t want to listen – fellow campers in Yellowstone, patients in his medical office, other guests at a high-fluting wedding – and they, in turn reported him to the FBI. Scroll through the deep file and you’ll get a feel for just how tenacious Ernie Lazar was, and how his work helped some important research and books break down conspiracy theories and some government practices that threatened democracy.

And he did this 9,000 times.

I’d say America needs more Ernie Lazars.

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