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Policy Letter

POGO Joins Group Letter Urging President Obama to be More Transparent

July 8, 2014

President Barack Obama

The White House

Washington, D.C

July 8, 2014

Mr. President,

You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.

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. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship -- an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.

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.

Some argue that controlling media access is needed to ensure information going out is correct. But when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. 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.

It has not always been this way. In prior years, 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. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists without surveillance. Meanwhile, agency personnel are free speak to others -- lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money -- without these controls and without public oversight.

Here are some recent examples:

• The New York Times ran a story last December on the soon-to-be implemented ICD-10 medical coding system, a massive change for the health care system that will affect the whole public. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), one of the federal agencies in charge of ICD-10, wouldn’t allow staff to talk to the reporter.

• A reporter with Investigative Post, an online news organization in New York, asked three times without success over the span of six weeks to have someone at EPA answer questions about the agency's actions regarding the city of Buffalo’s alleged mishandling of “universal waste” and hazardous waste.

• A journalist with Reuters spent more than a month trying to get EPA’s public affairs office to approve him talking with an agency scientist about the effects of climate change. The public affairs officer did not respond to him after his initial request, nor did her supervisor, until the frustrated journalist went over their heads and contacted EPA’s chief of staff.

The undersigned organizations ask that you seek an end to this restraint on communication in federal agencies. We ask that you issue a clear directive telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so. We believe that is one of the most important things you can do for the nation now, before the policies become even more entrenched.

We also ask you provide an avenue through which any incidents of this suppression of communication may be reported and corrected. Create an ombudsman to monitor and enforce your stated goal of restoring transparency to government and giving the public the unvarnished truth about its workings. That will go a long way toward dispelling Americans’ frustration and cynicism before it further poisons our democracy.

Further examples on the issue are provided as well as other resources.

Sincerely,

David Cuillier

President

Society of Professional Journalists

[email protected]

Beth Parke

Executive Director

Society of Environmental Journalists

[email protected]

Kathryn Foxhall

Member

Society of Professional Journalists

[email protected]

Holly Spangler

President

American Agricultural Editors’ Association

Gil Gullickson

Board Chair

American Agricultural Editors’ Association Professional Improvement Foundation

Alexandra Cantor Owens

Executive Director

American Society of Journalists and Authors

Janet Svazas

Executive Director

American Society of Business Publication Editors

David Boardman

President

American Society of News Editors

Hoda Osman

President

Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association

Kathy Chow

Executive Director

Asian American Journalists Association

Diana Mitsu Klos

Executive Director

Associated Collegiate Press

Paula Poindexter

President

Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication

Miriam Pepper

President

Association of Opinion Journalists

Lisa Graves

Executive Director

Center for Media and Democracy

Rachele Kanigel

President

College Media Association

Gay Porter DeNileon

President

Colorado Press Women

Sue Udry

Executive Director

Defending Dissent Foundation

Mark Newton

President

Journalism Education Association

Mark Horvit

Executive Director

Investigative Reporters and Editors

J.H. Snider

President

iSolon.org

Phyllis J. Griekspoor

President

North American Agricultural Journalists

Carol Pierce

Executive Director

National Federation of Press Women

Robert M. Williams Jr.

President

National Newspaper Association

Bob Meyers

President

National Press Foundation

Charles Deale

Executive Director

National Press Photographers Association

Diana Mitsu Klos

Executive Director

National Scholastic Press Association

Mary Hudetz

President

Native American Journalists Association

Jane McDonnell

Executive Director

Online News Association

Patrice McDermott

Executive Director

OpenTheGovernment.org

Tim Franklin

President

The Poynter Institute

Danielle Brian

Executive Director

Project On Government Oversight

Jeff Ruch

Executive Director

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

George Bodarky

President

Public Radio News Directors Incorporated

Mike Cavender

Executive Director

Radio Television Digital News Association

Herb Jackson

President

Regional Reporters Association

Christophe Deloire

Secretary General

Reporters without Boarders

Frank LoMonte

Executive Director

Student Press Law Center

Roy S. Gutterman

Director

Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University

David Steinberg

President

UNITY Journalists for Diversity