Earlier this week, Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times unfurled this assessment of the White House’s transparency record:
Right now, every signal from Mrs. Clinton is that should she win, her administration would continue the tradition of being still more secretive than the one before it; the Obama White House has achieved just that with its abysmal record on fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests and its record of prosecuting whistle-blowers who have shared national security information with the press.
The White House today dissented from that opinion in a letter to the editor from Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “If President Obama’s government transparency effort is not even noted by The Times’s media columnist, then why would future presidential candidates make it a priority?” That effort, argues Earnest, includes (but is not limited to) releasing information on every visitor to the White House, providing access to formal remarks at fund-raisers and this: “The Obama administration has also proactively released more than 180,000 data sets on a federal government website named, appropriately enough, Data.gov. This means that reporters and citizens have access to mind-boggling amounts of data — that they may not even have known existed — without having to formally request it.”
Is that all you got, Earnest?
Dissenting voices aren’t terribly hard to find. As this blog noted back in 2013, a study of Obama administration transparency brought forth these comments from various journalists. The quotes below were given not to the Erik Wemple Blog, but to the study’s authors:
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.”
Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson called it “the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering.” New York Times reporter James Risen — who fought efforts to secure his testimony in a leak investigation — said bluntly, “I think Obama hates the press.” USA Today’s Susan Page called it “more restrictive” and “more dangerous” to media than any other White House in history. The Associated Press found a fault or two with the Obama administration’s record on FOIA requests.
The president himself has declared that he runs “the most transparent administration in history.” In his letter to the New York Times, however, Earnest didn’t make that claim quite so baldly. It faults Rutenberg for failing to “acknowledge the important and unprecedented steps that the Obama administration has taken to fulfill the president’s promise to lead the most transparent White House in history.” Is Earnest arguing that those steps have fulfilled the promise — or that they represent progress toward such fulfillment? Vague words for such a transparent crew.