Did anyone see the recent CNN interview with newly-named White House press secretary Josh Earnest? He inexplicably lauded President Obama for being “transparent” with the press, but the truth is quite the opposite.
Earnest insisted, “I think the president’s record of transparency stands up to any of the records of his predecessors…I have a responsibility in this job to try to help the president live up to his commitment to be the most transparent president in history…”
At that point, CNN guy Brian Stetler had heard enough. He uncorked a great comebacker: “I’m surprised you will still say that line, ‘the most transparent president in history.'”
Because, frankly, that line is a crock. The top figures in the mainstream press have rightly been complaining for years that Obama has been uniquely untransparent. In the words of Margaret Sullivan, the ombudsman at The New York Times, “It’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.”
CNN’s Stelter pressed Earnest further: “You all still stick by that line?” To which Earnest said, “Absolutely. Absolutely.”
Yes, the White House is somehow still claiming to be uniquely media-friendly – despite what Margaret Sullivan rightly says.
And despite what Times Washington correspondent David Sanger rightly says: “This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
And despite what former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie rightly says: “The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”
And despite what ABC News correspondent Ann Compton rightly says: “(Obama) is the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered, in terms of how he does his daily business.”
And despite what Ellen Weiss, another Washington bureau chief, rightly says: “The Obama administration is far worse than the Bush administration” in trying to foil press coverage of government agencies.
As detailed last autumn in a damning report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (written by Downie), the Obama team has even launched an “Insider Threat Program,” which requires that all federal workers monitor their colleagues’ behavior – to ensure that nobody talks to the press without prior authorization. (And authorization is rarely granted anyway.) Downie writes: “Numerous Washington-based journalists told me that officials are reluctant to discuss even unclassified information with them, because they fear that leak investigations and government surveillance makes it difficult for reporters to protect them as sources.”
So much for Obama’s ’09 promise that his administration would be “the most open and transparent in history.” So much for the fine words he crafted on the White House website: “Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.”
The gap between promise and performance has been widening for years. Early in 2012, for instance, Washington lawyer Katherine Meyer, heatedly complained that the Obama team has been uniquely hostile to information disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act. In her words, “Obama is the sixth administration that’s been in office since I’ve been doing Freedom of Information Act work…It’s kind of shocking to me to say this, but of the six, this administration is the worst on FOIA issues. The worst. There’s just no question about it.This administration is raising one barrier after another…It’s gotten to the point where I’m stunned – I’m really stunned.”
And now comes a new salvo, this time from the Society of Professional Journalists. In a July 8 letter to Obama, the group wrote: “You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically-driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies…The stifling of free expression is happening despite your pledge on your first day in office to bring ‘a new era of openness’ to federal government.”
SPJ isn’t talking about sensitive national security coverage; it’s talking about the thwarting of routine coverage of federal agencies like the EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services. From the letter: “Contact (with agency staffers) is often blocked completely…Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers…
“It has not always been this way. In prior years, reporters walked the halls of agencies and called staff people at will. Only in the past two administrations have media access controls been tightened at most agencies. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists…”
In his CNN interview last week, Brian Stelter cited this letter. He asked Josh Earnest, “Do you think they have legitimate concerns?” And Earnest shrugged it off: “The day that they sort of sit back and say, ‘you know, we don’t need to write a letter, the White House is telling us everything that they’re supposed to,’ is the day that they’re no longer doing their jobs.”
His non-response didn’t begin to address the substance of the letter, much less to acknowledge the administration’s track record – which includes at least seven criminal investigations of news leaks about national security issues (a record-high number of attempts to punish whistle blowers); last year’s unprecedented seizure of Associated Press phone records; and the monitoring of a Fox News reporter.
Such is the chasm between Obama’s promise and performance. What’s amusing, of course, is that conservatives and their trolls persist in believing that Obama and the press are symbiotically lovey dovey. But that canard is almost as delusional as Earnest’s boast about his transparent boss.