Washington loves the perennial debate about whether the current administration is any more or less secretive than previous ones. It’s a topic driven by the often warped perceptions of journalists and serves as the spine of a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) by former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. with reporting by Sara Rafsky. Downie’s takeaway? “The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration,” writes Downie, who previewed the report’s themes via an earlier piece in The Post’s Outlook section.
Such judgments on a topic as squishy as transparency are, of course, subjective. As is the response from White House officials, who cite the president’s quite excellent record of sitting for interviews with all manner of national and local news outlets.
What’s fun about Downie’s CPJ report, though, is the input from folks who’ve clearly concluded they have little to lose from trashing the White House’s outreach record. On the record, too. Some highlights, verbatim from the report:
Ellen Weiss, Washington bureau chief for E.W. Scripps newspapers and stations, said “the Obama administration is far worse than the Bush administration” in trying to thwart accountability reporting about government agencies.
“In the past,” ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton told me, “we would often be called into the Roosevelt Room at the beginning of meetings to hear the president’s opening remarks and see who’s in the meeting, and then we could talk to some of them outside on the driveway afterward. This president has wiped all that coverage off the map. He’s the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered in terms of how he does his daily business.”
“When you call the White House press office to ask a question or seek information, they refer us to White House websites,” said Chris Schlemon, Washington producer for Britain’s Channel 4 television news network. “We have to use White House website content, White House videos of the president’s interviews with local television stations and White House photographs of the president.”
“The Obama people will spend an hour with you, off the record, arguing about the premise of the story,” said Josh Gerstein, who covers the White House and its information policies for Politico. “If the story is basically one that they don’t want to come out, they won’t even give you the basic facts.”
It’s hard to damage a relationship if you don’t have much of one to begin with.