Obama And Press Transparency; Or How The White House Channels Vladimir Putin

Published 10:46 am Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Whether in Cumberland County or the Oval Office, the free, uninhibited flow of information from government to the public through the press is a central component of our republic.

The First Amendment—not the second, third or fourth—stands as a bastion against abridging the freedom of the press.

Whether in Prince Edward or the halls of Congress, Buckingham or the capitol in Richmond, journalists need unrestricted direct access to government staff.

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The recent White House non-reply response to a letter from the Society of Professional Journalists, and nearly 40 other journalism and open government groups, opposing excessive controls by Public Information Officers (PIOs) is lousy.

The 105-year-old SPJ sent a letter to the president, according to the organization’s website, “urging changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communicating with staff without going through Public Information Officers, requiring PIOs to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources.”

These practices, the SPJ notes, “have become increasingly pervasive for decades, but have significantly advanced in the past several years.”

Because the White House provided no response at all, a follow-up letter was sent and this second missive triggered what the SPJ accurately termed a “non-response response letter” that would make Vladimir Putin proud.

Clearly, Putin and Obama see eye to eye on something and this, apparently, is it.

The White House replied via Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who wrote, “You’ve raised important points that I would like to address head-on.”

He then proceeded to tout the administration’s transparency for more than two pages without addressing the concerns raised by the SPJ and other groups about restricting journalists’ access to sources, government scientists and officials who have vital information of public interest.

The White House letter, with Emperor’s New Clothes chutzpah, concludes by telling the SPJ, “I don’t expect you to be satisfied. In fact, you wouldn’t be doing your important job as professional, independent journalists if you weren’t constantly advocating for more access and more transparency.”

Earnest’s non-expectation of SPJ satisfaction with the non-response response was more than fulfilled by SPJ President David Cuillier.

“Typical spin and response through non-response,” he responded, with an actual response. “While we applaud efforts to increase people’s access to their government through websites and FOIA, nowhere does the White House address specific concerns about excessive message management and preventing journalists from getting information on behalf of citizens.”

The White House letter is typical of governments and politicians everywhere because it doesn’t actually answer the question asked of it but, instead, answers the question it wished had been asked, in this case: please tell us how you believe the Obama Administration does a good job with transparency.

Earnest answers his own question extremely well, avoiding the SPJ’s actual questions.

Imagine the SPJ as the presiding minister at a wedding, asking the groom “will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live.”

The White House would have answered along the lines of “We went shopping the other day and I opened the door for her and then picked up the tab at lunch. She bought three pairs of shoes. I told her they all looked nice on her feet. I even let her use my credit card. I’ve not been dating anyone during our six-month engagement. And she’s about as nice a 23-year old young woman as you’d care to meet. I don’t expect you, reverend, or her—I’m sorry, your name eludes me—to be satisfied. In fact, you wouldn’t be doing your important job as a priest if you weren’t, now that we’re standing here at the altar, constantly advocating that till death to us part stuff.”

The minister, and we suspect the bride, too, would have responded much as the SPJ did. And as we shall when we confront similar government impediments to the free flow of information.

Government is not a private business.

It is the peoples’ business.