Journalists to Obama: Let the sunshine in


It’s an article of faith on the right that the press is in love with Barack Obama.

No amount of coverage of the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s foreign policy foibles or its overzealous war on leaks can shake that deeply held conviction.

But it’s been clear for some time that the relationship between Team Obama and the world of journalism is an extremely rocky one. James Risen, the New York Times reporter who may face jail if he won’t testify in a leak case, has called the administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.”

At last the news media are fighting back. A letter signed by 38 journalism and open government organizations accuses the administration of “politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies.” The coalition calls on the president, who once promised his would be the most transparent administration ever, to clean up its act, to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.

This isn’t an inside baseball battle that matters only to whiny reporters. It’s an issue that goes to the heart of a democratic society. People need information about issues that affect their lives so they can make intelligent decisions about government. They can’t do that if the books are cooked.

The troubles highlighted in the letter don’t in and of themselves sound like atrocities that call for firing up the war crimes tribunal at The Hague. But taken together they represent a major impediment to getting the straight dope to the people.

Problems cited by the journalism groups include: failing to respond to interview requests until way after deadline; requiring public relations staffers to sit in on interviews; blocking contact completely in some instances; requiring reporters to seek permission to interview officials and submit questions in advance; providing only “slick non-answers” from public relations pros rather than allowing unfettered interviews with the principals.

That’s a recipe for fog, not illumination.

The Society of Professional Journalists played a key role in assembling the large coalition supporting the strongly worded letter. David Cuillier, SPJ’s president, points out that it’s awfully unusual to get so many journalism outfits to agree on anything — that’s how serious the problem has become. And he gives major credit for the campaign to the persistence of SPJ member and freelance writer Kathryn Foxhall.

Foxhall, who has covered federal agencies in Washington, D.C., for 40 years, says she first detected signs of the looming information blackout about 20 years ago. But things just kept getting worse. And many journalists shrugged it off. “People are always manipulating the message,” they would say.

Sunshine seekers met with Obama administration officials early in the president’s first term in an effort to turn things around. But hope was short-lived; things went backward. Foxhall characterizes the government approach as “intense censorship,” adding, “You get the official story and nothing else.” She says it gets worse each year.
Foxhall and SPJ worked to raise awareness of the problem. There was a debate last August at the National Press Club, and surveys revealing just how dire things were. In the spring they decided it was time to send the letter to the president.

“There was no problem getting those signatures” from the wide array of organizations, Foxhall says. “Even people we didn’t ask wanted to sign.”

Cuillier, former chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, studies open government in his day job as an associate professor at the University of Arizona. He says when the organization tried to focus attention on the massive message manipulation in the past, “We heard crickets.” He says he’s amazed at the outpouring of support since the letter was released last week.

Cuillier stresses that the information shortfall “isn’t hurting the journalists. It’s the public. We still get paid. We still do our stories. We see it harming the country.”

Of course, no one expects the Obama administration to roll over, cowering in fear in the wake of a letter from journalism groups. They are fighting a trend that predates the current regime and just keeps intensifying.

But it’s an important battle, and it has to be fought. The letter is a start.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here