The U.S. system of government relies on citizens having full access to information that can be used in self-governance. Journalists and other First Amendment advocates were enthused when the Obama administration came into office with convincing statements about transparency and open government.
President Obama himself has claimed, “This is the most transparent administration in history,” and his press secretaries have echoed that boast on multiple occasions.
Showboating about transparency and executing it are different things, as the journalistic community is now pointing out. Representatives of 38 journalism organizations sent a letter last month to President Obama, complaining about a lack of government transparency. The lead signature was by David Cuillier, president of the highly regarded Society of Professional Journalists.
The letter criticized the administration for “politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies.” It cited government delays in responding to reporters’ requests for public information, blackballing of reporters, lack of access to government officials and overuse of anonymous sourcing by official spokesmen.
CNN media critic Brian Stelter asked White House press secretary Josh Earnest about the letter during an interview. Earnest casually dismissed the concerns, saying the administration has “absolutely” lived up to its promise of being the most transparent White House ever. It is not clear how Earnest has decisively quantified this claim versus the administrations of, for example, Martin Van Buren or Millard Fillmore. Earnest’s failure to seriously discuss sincerely presented concerns tells us a great deal about the White House mindset regarding the open flow of information to the public’s surrogates in the press.
This concern for transparency is not just about journalists trying to get their stories. More than half of the federal government’s own inspectors general have signed a letter to congressional leaders this month complaining that the Obama administration has stifled their work. The inspectors accuse several government agencies, including the Justice Department, of limiting access to government records.
Transparency concerns also go well beyond petty, partisan politics. Complaints are being expressed from all ideological corners. Progressive Ralph Nader wrote earlier this year that “despite lofty initial campaign promises by the Obama administration, widespread government secrecy has only worsened in recent years.” Nader said access to information is “disturbingly limited.”
A government website designed to make federal spending more transparent was created in 2007 with the support of then-Senator Obama. A Government Accounting Office report this month indicated that less than 8 percent of the spending reported on the site was accurate. More than $600 billion of federal grants were missing from the website.
The president and his spokesmen like to dismiss stories such as Internal Revenue Service targeting, National Security Agency spying, DOJ snooping and Benghazi on reporters as “phony scandals” and made-up distractions. But all of these stories linger because of unanswered questions and lack of meaningful information.
The administration could bring all of these matters to closure by simply releasing all available records. As DePauw University’s noted rhetorician Robert Weiss has said, “Truth is a great conversation stopper.” In turn, posturing, falsehood and absence of information keeps a conversation going. When the president says there is “not a smidgen of corruption” at the IRS, but provides no evidence to prove his claim, he ensures the story goes on.
James Madison is credited with being the intellectual force behind our nation’s constitution. He once explained, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.” He went on to write, “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
The White House, in spite of its claims, is acting against these principles. Curtailing the free flow of government information disempowers the citizenry, leaving them less able “to be their own governors.” Considering the many current news items for which incomplete government information is being provided, the Madison prophecy of a farce and/or tragedy could well be in progress.
Jeffrey McCall is a Professor of Communications and Theater at DePauw University in Greencastle, IN, and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. This post was originally published in the Providence Journal and several other publications. It is republished here with the permission of the author. Contact McCall at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Prof_McCall.
Photo Credit: By Official White House Photo by David Lienemann