President Obama may believe that his is the most transparent administration ever, but it’s tough to find many journalists who agree. The latest call for this administration to live up to its rhetoric on transparency comes from a huge group of journalism and good-government organizations:
Thirty-eight journalism and open government groups today called on President Obama to stop practices in federal agencies that prevent important information from getting to the public.
The national organizations sent a letter to Obama today urging changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communicating with staff without going through public information offices, requiring government PIOs to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources.
“The practices have become more and more pervasive throughout America, preventing information from getting to the public in an accurate and timely matter,” said David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “The president pledged to be the most transparent in history. He can start by ending these practices now.”
The letter, posted here, says:
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.
It goes on:
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 cites these 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.
There are more examples cited here, and the letter goes on to say:
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.
A press release from the journalism organizations said:
Never before has such a broad-based coalition of journalism and good-governance organizations spoken out on this issue. The growing number of examples of “mediated access” have not just frustrated journalists but have led to specific cases of important information not reaching the public.
Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, said:
Our members find that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press staff routinely block them from getting needed information — even in a public health crisis, even when the agency is rolling out new regulations and it’s important to localize the story. Anytime officials suppress information or downplay scientific findings, they are interfering with the public’s right to know. When reporters are ignored, and access is denied, news stories suffer and the public is cheated.