On the plus side, more government information is now available online, much of it “big data” collected and generated by federal agencies. Some of it is potentially useful for consumers and businesses, such as student loan and grant information, resources for seniors, ways to do business with the government, federal jobs, volunteer opportunities, diet and medical information, assistance for farming and solar energy development, and much more. Some of the data about government spending and regulations also are useful for the news media and accountability reporting.
But there’s not nearly enough of what journalists and citizens need to hold the government truly accountable — whether information on national security, government surveillance and immigration policies, or specifics about stimulus spending and officials’ travel and other perks.
After some initial improvement by the Obama administration in fulfilling FOIA requests, delays and denials are growing again, according to journalists and studies by news organizations. An AP analysis published in March found that “more often than it ever has, [the Obama administration] cited legal exceptions to censor or withhold the material” and “frequently cited the need to protect national security and internal deliberations.” Some of the administration’s new open-information policies also contain broad and vague exceptions that could be used to hide records crucial to accountability reporting about such subjects as health-care payments, government subsidies, workplace accidents or detentions of terrorism suspects.
Every administration I remember has tried to control its message and manage contacts with the media. As a senior editor for more than a quarter-century, I frequently received complaints from administrations of both parties about coverage they considered unfavorable, along with occasional and mostly empty threats to cut off access. Journalists who covered the George W. Bush administration said they encountered arrogant attitudes toward the press but were usually able to engage knowledgeable officials in productive dialogue.
But reporters covering the Obama administration say more and more officials will no longer talk at all and refer them to uncommunicative or even hostile and bullying press aides. “The White House doesn’t want anyone leaking,” said one senior Washington correspondent who, like others, described a tight, difficult-to-penetrate inner circle that controls the administration’s decisions and micromanages its message. “There are few windows on decision-making and governing philosophy. There is a perception that Obama himself has little regard for the news media.”
Continuing what worked so successfully during two presidential election campaigns, Obama and his administration have instead engaged citizens directly through social media, friendly bloggers, radio and video. It amounts to the White House reporting on itself, presenting an appearance of greater openness while avoiding penetrating questions from journalists who have the knowledge and experience to do meaningful accountability reporting. The administration’s media manipulation extends even to photography: Professional photojournalists are banned from many White House events and presidential activities; only approved images of Obama taken by a White House photographer are supplied to the news media.
Most Americans may not care much about the Obama administration’s openness to the news media or the potential damage to the First Amendment and government accountability resulting from its aggressive war on leaks. But as the administration copes with second-term governing challenges, real national security threats and darkening clouds of scandal, its credibility will become increasingly important to the president’s legacy. It is not too late for Obama’s actions to match his rhetoric.
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