By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Journalism and open government groups, including The Newspaper Guild-CWA, are accusing the administration of failing to uphold President Obama’s stated commitment to “an unprecedented level of openness in government and transparency.”
In a July letter to Obama, the organizations reminded him of his inaugural pledge “to bring a new era of openness” to federal government.
Instead, the letter says, the administration has “engaged in a form of censorship by attempting to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”
“Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level,” the letter says. “Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless their bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely.”
The letter originated from the Society of Professional Journalists and was signed by 37 other organizations when it was sent July 8. Since then, nine more groups, including the Guild, have signed on.
The letter lists a series of recent examples highlighting the problem:
- The New York Times ran a story last December on the soon-to-be implemented ICD-10 medical coding system, a massive change affecting all health care providers and patients. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service, one of the federal agencies in charge of ICD-10, wouldn’t allow staff to talk to the reporter.
- A reporter with the online Investigative Post tried three times over six weeks, without success, to have someone at the EPA answer questions about the agency’s actions regarding the city of Buffalo’s alleged mishandling of hazardous waste.
- A Reuters journalist spent more than a month trying to get EPA’s public affairs office to approve an interview with an agency scientist about the effects of climate change. The public affairs officer didn’t respond, nor did her supervisor, until the frustrated journalist went over their heads to EPA’s chief of staff.
It hasn’t always been this way, the letter states, noting that in years past “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,” the letter says, pointing out the irony that “agency personnel are free to speak to others – lobbyists, special interest representatives and people with money without these controls and public oversight.”
Under the Obama administration, even non-defense agencies “have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists,” unless a public affairs officer is present, the letter says.
“When journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government,” the letter continues. “This is not a ‘press vs. government’ issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions.”
Among the organizations signing the letter are the American Society of News Editors, the National Press Photographers Association, the National Newspaper Association, OpenTheGovernment.org, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the North American Agricultural Journalists, the Student Press Law Center, UNITY Journalists for Diversity, Project on Government Oversight, Reporters Without Borders and the Poynter Institute.
Further fueling journalists’ anger is the hypocrisy between their experiences and what the Obama administration claims publicly. A memorandum posted on the White House website calls for “transparency and open government.”
“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” the directive states. “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
Toward those ends, Obama stated that he would direct top government technology and management officials to quickly work toward an Open Government Directive instructing executive departments and agencies to take specific actions in line with the principles outlined.
Read the full memorandum here.