In practice, Barack Obama has been the antithesis of openness — which is why it was so galling, last week, when he lectured a roomful of Washington journalists on how they could better do their jobs.
Spring is only two weeks old, but thus far the season’s most conspicuous hypocrite is not Donald Trump or any of the other aspirants. Nope, the top dishonor goes to Barack Obama, who said at the dawn of his tenure that he was “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”
In practice, Obama has been the antithesis of openness — which is why it was so galling, last week, when he lectured a roomful of Washington journalists on how they could better do their jobs.
While addressing the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting banquet, he said that journalists too often succumb to “Twitter rumors and celebrity gossip and softer stories.” That’s true, as far as it goes. But then Obama made his pitch for harder stories: Journalists should have “higher aspirations … because a well-informed electorate depends on you.” To report the serious stuff, “follow your best instincts and dig deeper into things that might not always be flashy, but need attention … to probe and to question, to dig deeper …. Real people depend on you to uncover the truth.”
All told, he said, “you are supposed to push those in power for more evidence and more access” in order to “explain complicated esoteric issues in a way that Americans could digest and use to make informed decisions.” That, he declared, is “the responsibility of journalism.”
That’s all very inspirational. But the problem, long documented, is that the Obama regime has repeatedly thwarted journalists’ attempts “to probe, and to question, to dig deeper.” The steps it has taken have been unprecedented. As New York Times Washington correspondent David Sanger rightly remarked a few years ago, “This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
Conservatives and fact-challenged trolls seem to assume that Obama and the “liberal media” have been locked in a perpetual lovefest. Not so. Here’s what the Society of Professional Journalists, a media trade group, wrote in a letter to Obama two years ago: “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.” All too often, reporters deal with “the politically-driven suppression of news and information …. 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.”
Here’s how the administration suppresses news and foils reporters’ attempts to fulfill what Obama calls “the responsibility of journalism”:
According to a damning ’13 report sponsored by the Committee to Protect Journalists and authored by ex-Washington Post editor Leonard Downie, the Obama team has 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 wrote:
“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.”
We’re not talking here about national security stories (although, in that realm, the Obama team has set a record for most prosecutions of whistleblowers); no, we’re talking here about the routine coverage of agencies like the EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services. In its aforementioned letter to Obama, the SPJ wrote:
“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.”
Stephen Engelberg, the editor-in-chief of the investigative journalism website ProPublica, echoed those concerns during a PBS interview last year. Traditionally, “you could go to the EPA and talk to a scientist about a complicated issue. Today, not only will they not allow that interview with a spokesman sitting present to keep an eye on; they don’t allow the interview at all.”
Granted, journalists since time immemorial have complained about being jerked around. But the metrics prove that this administration is the worst. According to an Associated Press investigation, released two weeks ago, the Obama team has led the league in stiffing the Freedom of Information Act:
“The Obama administration set a record for the number of times its federal employees told disappointed citizens, journalists, and others that despite searching they couldn’t find a single page requested under the Freedom of Information Act …. In more than one in six cases, or 129,825 times, government searchers said they came up empty-handed last year. Such cases contributed to an alarming measurement: People who asked for records under the law received censored files or nothing in 77 percent of requests, also a record.”
That jibes with what Washington attorney Katherine Meyer said four years ago. A veteran FOIA specialist, Meyer saw the pattern back then: “Obama is the sixth administration that’s been in office since I’ve been doing Freedom of Information work …. Of the six, this administration is the worst on FOIA issues. The worst. This administration is raising one barrier after another.”
And sometimes one anecdote can sum things up better than a stat. Chuck Raasch, a Washington journalist I know, shared this gem last week: “A White House person recently answered a question about new [gun] legislation by offering a no comment. The e-mailed response was prefaced with ‘off the record.'”
So, a memo to Obama:
Spare us the sanctimony. Before you lecture journalists about their “responsibility” to “uncover the truth,” try taking responsibility for impeding the coverage.