The Obama administration's spat with pretty much the entire media over transparency (or lack thereof) is all in good fun, insists White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. "They're all journalists," he commented about critics of the administration. "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."
But the 40-plus journalism groups that last week accused the federal government of "a form of censorship" don't see it as the usual push and pull between politicians and their friendly rivals in the media. In a co-signed letter, they complain that "Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees."
With specific regard to the Obama administration, they write:
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 – and the subsequent executive orders and directives which were supposed to bring such openness about.
Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level. Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely. When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title "spokesperson." 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. Agencies hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.
In many cases, this is clearly being done to control what information journalists – and the audience they serve – have access to. A survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote.
The letter contrasts the current crackdown with the relatively open access available before this century. "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 without surveillance."
U.S. President Barack Obama came into office pledging open government, but he has fallen short of his promise. Journalists and transparency advocates say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press. Aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.
In February of last year, President Obama patted himself on the back, claiming "This is the most transparent administration in history."
Last week's letter suggests there aren't too many people left sharing his Kool-Aid. The full letter can be found at the Society of Professional Journalists' Website.