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Home > Publications > Quill > President Obama: Opaque Transparency?


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Monday, October 5, 2009
President Obama: Opaque Transparency?

The president may talk a good talk about openness, but some wonder whether the administration will walk the walk. Or is it too soon to tell?

By Michelle Rydell

Hopes for a more transparent Washington are beginning to fade, a consequence of President Barack Obama’s perceived hesitation to follow through with promises made during his campaign and on his first full day in office.

But journalists and open government proponents aren’t ready to give up yet.

Critics of the previous administration and transparency advocates blogged excitedly Jan. 21 when Obama signed the Presidential Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, promising an administration “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.”

The shift from former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s 2001 instruction to withhold information whenever there was a “sound legal basis” to do so, to Obama’s directive to “disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use,” was a breath of fresh air to FOI advocates.

But just as suddenly, journalists found themselves hearing some of the same justifications offered by the Bush administration to sidestep questions in response to their requests for information: presidential communication privilege, exemption five of the federal law.

While some say time is running out for Obama to make good on his promises, others argue that such a policy reversal takes time and, more important, dollars. Scarce resources during a shaky economy only compound the burden of making government more transparent.

“There really is a growing concern among a lot of different groups that the administration is not living up to its commitment to transparency,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

CREW, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, targets government officials who appear to be catering to special interest groups. The organization is suing the Department of Homeland Security for refusing to provide White House visitor records from top coal executives and refusing records that detail visits from health industry officials.

The records were chosen because CREW believes they are important to help shed light on the degree of influence outside groups have had at the White House, Weismann said. But the requests were carefully worded to make it clear that the organization was not seeking private information about the visitors, making it difficult for CREW to understand the logic behind the rejection.

“The concept that the public has no right to know … it’s repugnant of our whole concept of democracy and accountability,” Weismann said. “This is the president and his staff doing the people’s business. … Today it’s visitor logs, what could it be next?”

Bill Dedman, an investigative reporter for MSNBC.com, filed a request similar to CREW’s, but on a broader level. Dedman informally requested all White House visitor logs starting Jan. 20, but White House officials said the policy was under review. He filed a FOIA request in May and was denied in June.

After MSNBC.com detailed the refusal in a Web story, Dedman said the White House press office called the network to say the decision is still under review, but that the office did not clarify who is reviewing the policy or how long it might take.

The White House has voluntarily released some visitor logs, but Dedman said it’s a limited effort that does not demonstrate transparency. In fact, some journalists view the selective release of records as an attempt to control a message while appearing to support transparency.

Bryan Sears, a political editor for Patuxent Publishing Co. in Baltimore County, Md., and a member of SPJ’s FOI committee, said that while Obama’s message has been consistent, his actions have not followed his words.

“What I have observed is a spotty enforcement of these very positive changes,” he said.

But Sears and many other journalists aren’t prepared to fully judge Obama’s transparency efforts quite yet. With less than a year in office, Obama has already taken the first step toward more transparent government by reversing the previous administration’s practice of withholding information whenever legally possible.

“The current president has to overcome the institutional memory of what the (past) seven years were, and some of that will take time,” Sears said. “But it has to be more than just pretty and inspiring words. He said the right thing, but the implementation isn’t there yet. Time will tell if those words have any meaning.”

Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of journalists and open government proponents, said the years after Sept. 11, 2001, were a “horrific eight-year story of loss of information and control of information and suppression of information.”

The nation reeled after the terrorist attacks, putting Congress and the public interest community in a “defensive crouch,” McDermott said.

“It was like, ‘don’t hit us again.’ The administration acted with such vehemence, telling Congress … that if they didn’t pass exactly what the administration wanted, the blood of the next attack would be on their hands.”

She said that for several years, anybody who questioned whether the secrecy was really in the interest of national security was demonized, until Congress “started finding its spine again.”

“A lot of the people who are handling issues are the same people in the Bush administration. It’s very difficult to shift the bureaucracy. It takes time, and I think people hoped it would happen sooner.”
- Meredith Fuchs

Coming off an eight-year spiral of secrecy, McDermott’s organization felt hope for change, and began working on transition strategies and recommendations for the new president.

Although the coalition was pleased the Obama administration started strong with a clear, verbal commitment to transparency, there is concern that not enough has been done yet, McDermott said.

“There was a sense that he would turn his back on (Bush administration) policies, and I think that the jury is still out,” she said. “A lot of folks in our community are still holding fire, although we’re very, very disappointed so far.”

Comparing Obama to past presidents is difficult because statistics regarding FOIA requests and denials have not been released, said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

FOIA requests have increased substantially from 1999 to 2007, jumping from 1.9 million requests, costing $287 million, to 21.7 million, costing nearly $353 million, according to the 2008 Secrecy Report Card, published annually since 2004 by OpenTheGovernment.org.

But although FOIA requests have increased dramatically, fully granted requests dropped from 51.3 percent from 1998-2002 to 35.6 in 2007, a record low since 1998.

Because there are no numbers for 2009 yet, FOI advocates are relying on anecdotal evidence and gut feelings.

Dalglish said that so far, Obama has said and done all of the right things to indicate that his has the potential to be the “most open administration in history.” Already, she has noticed important changes.

“For the first time in eight years, folks like (the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press) are being asked what we think. We are being invited up to (Capitol Hill) and the White House more often, and we have easier access to folks in the Justice Department,” Dalglish said.

Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the National Security Archives, said Obama’s political appointments have been encouraging so far for Freedom of Information advocates. The NSA is an independent, non-governmental research institute and library at The George Washington University that collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through FOIA requests.

“A lot of the people who are handling issues are the same people in the Bush administration,” Fuchs said. “It’s very difficult to shift the bureaucracy. It takes time, and I think people hoped it would happen sooner.”

While it’s not clear how much time it takes to “transform” policy, Fuchs said it’s worth the wait if it can be accomplished successfully and have a lasting effect. But she doesn’t expect the public to wait too long.

“I don’t think the public is going to have much patience for secrecy being used to manipulate public opinion,” Fuchs said. “We’ve been through that, and it led to a tremendous backlash about the Bush administration. … Now there’s a great deal of suspicion about executive actions, and everyone’s watching more closely.”

Joe Strupp, senior editor of Editor & Publisher, a newspaper trade journal, said conversations with Washington reporters tell him that Obama may be more controlling of the press than most voters realized.

“When you get down to specifics, every administration wants to control their message,” Strupp said. “Some are better at it than others. Some are seen as more secretive than others.”

So far, there has not been a huge outcry for more information, which may make it easier for the Obama administration to make transparency less of a priority, Strupp said.

“(Obama) could be as open as he wants to be. He doesn’t have to ask anyone. But a lot of times, being open for the press isn’t his first priority, especially for this president at this time.”

Weismann agrees, saying that change, particularly transparency, often comes after an administration sees adverse consequences to its actions. But having an administration that is controlling its message under the pretense of transparency is alarming, she believes.

“Having transparency on their terms in the limited way they are proceeding so far is the wrong course. It’s a dangerous course, ultimately,” she said. “You can’t dip your toes in transparency. You have to accept that, yes, it may have some uncomfortable moments for you, but ultimately it’s serving a higher good.”

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