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Journalists ask White House for commitment to openness



Dec. 15, 2015

Paul Fletcher, SPJ National President, 804-873-1893, pfletcher.spj@gmail.com
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

WASHINGTON -- A delegation representing more than 50 journalism and open government organizations met with Josh Earnest, President Obama’s press secretary, today at the White House, urging greater openness and transparency from the federal government.

Four journalists from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the
Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and the Legal Counsel for the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) met with Earnest for about an hour to discuss communications policies, the use of Public Information Officers (PIOs) during interviews, anonymous background briefings, prohibitions against staff members speaking to reporters without notifying PIOs, and other policies that prevent information from flowing to the public.

“We asked that the president renew his commitment to transparency in government. The goal of this meeting is to try to bring about a culture change that has pervaded government for several decades,” said SPJ President Paul Fletcher. “We further asked for a clear statement that government employees are free to speak without interference to members of the press and public. Current policies, we believe, undermine democracy and public trust in our government. We asked for the Obama Administration to reverse that trend.”

"This Administration isn't just committed to the principle of transparency, we've committed to engaging advocates and journalists to discuss legitimate ideas that advance it. We look forward to continuing this conversation," Earnest said.

Fletcher added, “We appreciate Mr. Earnest’s time and willingness to meet face-to-face to discuss these important issues. It is our hope that he will take our concerns to President Obama, who will then make improving transparency a priority before the end of his term.”

The meeting follows at least five years of work done by various journalism organizations to study government transparency and the role PIOs or “minders” play in relaying important information to the American public. President Obama promised during his campaign to have the most transparent administration in the White House’s history. But journalists say it has become increasingly more difficult to speak to federal agency employees, conduct interviews and obtain information that should be readily available to the general public.

Most recently, 53 national organizations sent a letter to President Obama on Aug. 11 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.

This was the second letter the groups sent to the White House regarding government transparency. The first letter, sent July 8, 2014, and a follow-up letter sent Aug. 5, 2014, were met with a response from the White House on Aug. 11, 2014, that the groups found unsatisfactory.

The letters list the following practices as being harmful to the flow of information to the public:

• Officials blocking reporters’ requests to talk to specific staff people;
• Excessive delays in answering interview requests that stretch past reporters’ deadlines;
• Officials conveying information “on background,” refusing to give reporters what should be public information unless they agree not to say who is speaking;
• Federal agencies blackballing reporters who write critically of them.

“President Obama’s term is coming to a close, but it’s not too late to make lasting improvements in the way government officials work with journalists to improve the speed and accuracy in which crucial information is relayed to the American public,” Fletcher said. “The U.S. Freedom of Information Act turns 50 years old on July 4, making now the perfect time for the President to change these practices and participate in a public dialogue about improving the flow of information to the American people.”

The delegation left Mr. Earnest with a white paper and other materials to share with President Obama. The group hopes some decisions will be made in the coming weeks that will address these concerns.

Those who attended the meeting are:

Paul Fletcher, SPJ National President
David Cuillier, SPJ Past-President and former Freedom of Information Committee Chair
Kathryn Foxhall, SPJ FOI Committee Member
Tim Wheeler, SEJ FOI Task Force Chair
Kevin Goldberg, ASNE Legal Counsel

“It is our hope that this discussion will persuade President Obama to renew his commitment to transparency and set a gold standard to be carried on by the next President of the United States,” Fletcher said.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.


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