President needs to let the sunshine in
On Tuesday, the Sentinel published a wire story that included the ubiquitous “anonymous” sources in Washington, D.C.
Two congressional aides confirmed that President Barack Obama would ask Congress for emergency funding to deal with the border crisis, but that he would not seek authority to send unaccompanied migrant kids to their home countries faster than current laws allow.
“The aides spoke Monday on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter by name ahead of the announcement,” The Associated Press reported.
What in the name of Woodward and Bernstein is going on here? Versions of this paragraph appear far too often in stories originating from the nation’s capital. The fact that reporters must resort to cloak-and-dagger tactics to acquire information about the people’s business is the most obvious example of Obama’s failure to bring “a new era of openness” to the federal government, as he pledged to do on his first day in office.
On Tuesday the Society of Professional Journalists, representing scores of media organizations and government watchdog groups, called on Obama to end the stifling of free expression.
In a direct appeal to the president, the letter begins: “You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need to look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration — politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies.”
The letter goes on to describe a two-decade trend of federal agencies prohibiting staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. Contact is often blocked completely. When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially or request questions in writing “so they can send their own written responses of slick non-answers.”
We think that most, if not all, government employees should be authorized to answer questions from the public. After all, they work for us. The SPJ notes that controlling media access may ensure the accuracy of information, but undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government.
This is not a free press vs. the government issue. It’s about fostering a strong democracy. It’s about preserving access to the information people need to self-govern and trust in their governmental institutions. After all, the media have no greater right of access to public information than the average citizen.
The SPJ is asking Obama to issue a clear directive telling federal employees that they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, they’re encouraged to do so.
Here’s a chance for the president to put his money where his mouth is and restore transparency in government. He can be the president who finally made good on his word — or the president who cemented America’s cynicism.