LION joins 50 journalism orgs in pushing Obama on transparency

By Dylan Smith | Aug. 11, 2015

President Barack Obama delivers an address to the nation on immigration, from the East Room of the White House, Nov. 20, 2014.

LION Publishers joined Tuesday with more than 50 other national journalism and open government groups in calling on President Barack Obama – yet again – to stop practices in federal agencies that prevent important information from getting to the public.

The organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of News Editors, Investigative Reporters & Editors and LION, sent a letter to the president Monday urging changes to policies that constrict the flow of information to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communicating with staff without going through public information offices, requiring government PIOs to review interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources.

This was the second letter the groups sent to the White House regarding government transparency. The first letter, sent July 8, 2014, and a follow-up letter sent Aug. 5, 2014, were met with a non-response response from the White House on Aug. 11, 2014.

"President Obama pledged to lead the most transparent administration in history, but we have yet to see this promise fulfilled," said David Cuillier, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists's Freedom of Information Committee. "His term may be coming to a close, but it's not too late to make some real changes in the way officials work with journalists to improve the accuracy and speed in which important information is relayed to the public.

"The United States Freedom of Information Act celebrates its 50th anniversary on July 4, 2016. Now is the perfect time for the president to change the practices of his administration and participate in a public dialogue toward improving the flow of information to the American people," Cuillier added.

The most recent letter, like prior letters, outlines specific examples of excessive information control, considered by many journalists as a form of censorship:

  • Officials blocking reporters' requests to talk to specific staff people;
  • Excessive delays in answering interview requests that stretch past reporters' deadlines;
  • Officials conveying information "on background," refusing to give reporters what should be public information unless they agree not to say who is speaking.
  • Federal agencies blackballing reporters who write critically of them.

Local news reporters aren't often called upon to interview the president, but they do deal with federal officials frequently, said Dylan Smith, chairman of Local Independent Online News Publishers.

"Federal regulators are daily making decisions that have a direct effect on local communities," Smith said. "Whether it's the environment, or business, law enforcement or transportation funding, their power extends far from Washington, D.C. Sadly, too often they are not responsive to questions from journalists — and regular citizens — seeking to understand and explain what their actions will mean to local residents."

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, said the policies referred to in the letter "fundamentally restrict the quality of the information that citizens get about what government agencies are doing. When researchers, administrators and experts cannot speak freely, it becomes impossible to get a full and honest picture of a government program or policy. Such secrecy only fuels distrust and gives members of the public a right to wonder what is being done in their name, with their money."

Kathryn Foxhall, SPJ FOI Committee member, called these types of restraints alarming and forms of censorship.

"Surveys of journalists and public information officers demonstrate that the restraints have become pervasive across the country," Foxhall said. "This information suppression is fraught with danger – especially when it concerns the health and safety of the American people."

A recent review found that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a culture of unsafe handling of dangerous pathogens and that some staff feared reporting incidents. Last year the Food and Drug Administration announced it had smallpox, among other dangerous materials, in an apparently uninventoried storage for decades in violation of some of the most solemn of international treaties. All the employees working around those situations for years were forbidden to speak to reporters without surveillance by the PIOs, as was all other staff in those agencies, Foxhall explained.

"Some federal officials have said these policies are appropriate because employees can become whistleblowers to report wrongdoings. These whistleblower policies do not work," she said.

Beth Parke, executive director for the Society of Environmental Journalists, agreed that when interviews are denied or delayed, when environmental test results, enforcement data or scientific findings are suppressed, the public is cheated.

"Readers, viewers and listeners rely on local media. What's safe to drink when a spill causes a water crisis? What does it mean when oil-by-rail explodes? When press officers block access to people who could answer detailed questions, there are consequences — for public health and for democracy. We have a right to know, and journalists have a job to do," Parke said.

"Social media messaging is not transparency," she continued. "Connecting journalists who have questions to people with answers who can speak on the record is transparency. Public access to government science is transparency."

Never before has such a broad-based coalition of journalism and good-governance organizations spoken out on this issue. The growing number of examples of "mediated access" have not just frustrated journalists but have led to specific cases of important information not reaching the public.

"Transparency can't just be a buzzword or an applause line," said Joshua Hatch, board vce president and Legal Committee chair for the Online News Association. "It has to be a commitment from the highest levels to every hall of government. Without it, journalists are hamstrung, the public is kept in the dark and democracy suffers."

While journalists acknowledge and appreciate the assistance PIOs often provide in helping schedule interviews and putting reporters in touch with the appropriate contacts, for example, many say access is all too often hindered instead of helped.

"Throwing PIO roadblocks in the path of journalists contravenes the spirit of open government and free flow of information," said Bruce D. Brown, executive director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "While we appreciate the role of PIO as a facilitator, there is no substitute for reporters speaking directly to sources."

In addition to the letters, the organizations previously provided the White House with resources on the issue and a list of obstruction examples. They asked the administration to set up an avenue through which such incidents can be reported.

Some of those resources include:

SPJ 2015 Survey of Science Writers – A new survey sponsored by SPJ finds that science writers often face the same restrictions as other reporters.

Neiman Reports — "Public health reporters say federal agencies are restricting access and information, limiting their ability to cover crucial health issues."

Op-Ed for Sunshine Week, 2014 — The National Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists posted an op-ed for Sunshine Week saying these controls at all levels threaten the foundations of democracy. Several outlets ran it, including Poynter.org, the Buffalo News, and Cleveland.org.

Two 2014 Surveys Show the Problem Is Pervasive Nationally — NPC, SPJ and the Education Writers Association presented two new surveys on press office interference done by Carolyn Carlson on March 19 at the National Press Club. The reports are groundbreaking, illustrating the problem is pervasive in many areas of the country, and in all sorts of entities. The great majority of reporters said they felt the public is not getting the information it needs because of the barriers. The appendices with reporters' open-ended comments illustrate a tide of hard-ball obstruction.

House Website on VA Stonewalling Reporters — The House of Representatives Veterans Committee started a website on VA facilities stonewalling reporters prior to the current news stories on the VA. However, the House Committee, itself, does send reporters through its own PAO.

The 53 groups who signed the letter are:

  • American Copy Editors Society
  • American Society of Journalists and Authors
  • American Society of News Editors
  • Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association
  • Asian American Journalists Association
  • Associated Collegiate Press
  • Association of Alternative Newsmedia
  • Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
  • Association of Opinion Journalists
  • Bill of Rights Defense Committee
  • Center for Media & Democracy
  • Center for Scholastic Journalism
  • College Media Association
  • Colorado Press Women
  • Committee to Protect Journalists
  • Defending Dissent Foundation
  • Demand Progress
  • Education Writers Association
  • Freedom of the Press Foundation
  • Government Accountability Project
  • Investigative Reporters & Editors
  • iSolon.org
  • Journalism Education Association
  • Local Independent Online News Publishers
  • Media Freedom Foundation
  • Minnesota High School Press Association
  • National Association of Hispanic Journalists
  • National Federation of Press Women
  • National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association
  • National Press Photographers Association
  • National Scholastic Press Association
  • Native American Journalists Association
  • New England First Amendment Coalition
  • The NewsGuild - Communications Workers of America
  • Online News Association
  • OpenTheGovernment.org
  • PEN American Center
  • The Poynter Institute
  • Project Censored
  • Project On Government Oversight
  • Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
  • Radio Television Digital News Association
  • Regional Reporters Association
  • Religion Newswriters Association
  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
  • Reporters Without Borders
  • Society of Environmental Journalists
  • Society of Professional Journalists
  • Student Press Law Center
  • Sunlight Foundation
  • Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University
  • UNITY
  • Virginia Professional Communicators

— Background reporting by SPJ staff.