Silence reigns in the Administration’s response to criticisms of restrictions on access to the federal government. Last month, the Project On Government Oversight was one of 38 journalism and open government groups that urged President Obama to stop practices in federal agencies that prevent important information from getting to the public. In the July 8 letter (with retroactive signatures bringing the total number of supporting organizations to 48), groups called on the President “to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.”
The letter calls for changes to practices of excessive information control, drawing attention specifically to policies that restrict journalists from “communicating with staff without going through public information offices, requiring government PIOs [public information officers] to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources,” as POGO explained on the blog.
Examples of restrictions include officials blocking reporter requests for interviews, excessive delays that stretch past reporter deadlines, officials refusing to speak on record, and blackballing of reporters who write critically of that agency. Restricting journalist access to government staff greatly constricts the flow of information to the public, making the Administration’s promise of “creating an unprecedented level of openness” far less believable.
Unfortunately, the recent response from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest falls far short of addressing our concerns. In fact, in what the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) called “typical spin and response through non-response,” the Press Secretary’s response says next to nothing about journalist access to government staff.
Instead, it highlights other Administration actions to demonstrate commitment to open government. While the progress made elsewhere in the open government sphere (including whistleblower protections, Freedom of Information Act reform, and expanding civil society access to the Administration) is welcome, Earnest’s response fails to address the “important points [raised in the July 8 letter] that I [Earnest] would like to address head-on.” The only mention of journalists comes on the third page, as Earnest assures the reader that:
These historic efforts represent only a few of the many steps we’ve taken—at the President’s direction—to empower citizens to participate in their democracy and fulfill our obligation to ensure that independent journalists have access to the White House and insight into the priorities we’re fighting for.
Though some of the transparency initiatives mentioned in Earnest’s letter will have some positive impacts on public access to information, they do not directly address the access issues that POGO and our colleagues laid out.
Reporters at the state and local levels have had similar problems, with more than 80 percent of respondents to a survey by the SPJ claiming that “any interview of a government employee needed to be pre-approved by the Public Information Officer at least some of the time.”
SPJ and the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) urge journalists to join them in fighting these trends in public and private entities at the national, state, and local levels. News outlets can resist these trends by publishing editorials, explaining the tactics in news stories, and openly resisting the tactics whenever they are used. Journalists are invited to sign up for further information by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Administration needs to reexamine its commitment to openness and must address the suppression of communication plaguing journalists as they cover important stories about our government.