LION again joins 40 journalism orgs in pushing Obama on transparency

By Dylan Smith | Sep. 12, 2016

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 Monday with 40 national journalism groups in calling on President Obama – yet again – to stop practices in federal agencies that prevent important information from getting to the public.

"Obama may be leaving the White House, but we aren’t going anywhere. Our promise to the American people is to keep fighting for their right to know what their elected officials are up to," we said in a letter to the administration.

The organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of News Editors, Investigative Reporters & Editors and LION, sent a letter to Josh Earnest, the president's chief spokesman, 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.

The letter was prompted by Earnest's recent New York Times letter to the editor calling for journalists to give President Obama credit for improvements in government transparency.

“You highlight some of the ways the Obama administration has improved transparency in the White House,” the letter states. “Yet, the 50-plus groups repeatedly outlined to the administration various ways transparency has gotten worse, including:

  • 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.
  • A continued lack of meaningful visual access to the president by an independent press pool

Last December, a delegation representing the 50-some organizations met with Earnest at the White House to urge greater openness and transparency. That meeting followed at least five years of work done by various organizations to study government transparency and the role public information officers (PIOs) play in relaying important information to the American people.

“We have made multiple attempts to convey to the Obama administration that we believe transparency has, in fact, gotten worse the past eight years,” SPJ President Paul Fletcher said. “We were hoping we could point to this White House as a shining example of how it should be done. Unfortunately, we can’t do that and will have to start over with the next administration.”

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."

SPJ and other journalism and government accountability groups have contacted the White House multiple times over the past several years, asking the Obama administration to stop practices in federal agencies that obscure transparency and prevent important information from getting to the public. In the last letter, from August 2015, more than 50 organizations signed on to a letter at SPJ’s request, including LION Publishers.

The letter expresses the groups’ disappointment that, despite a promise to get back to them after the Dec. 15, 2015, White House meeting, the administration has not addressed their concerns.

The groups vow to keep fighting for transparency and open government.

“President Obama may be leaving the White House, but we aren’t going anywhere. Our promise to the American people is to keep fighting for their right to know what their elected officials are up to. To keep fighting for information and images they need to know and see to live their best, most informed, lives as American citizens.”

The organizations signing the letter were:

  • American Copy Editors Society
  • American Society of Journalists & Authors
  • American Society of News Editors
  • Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association
  • Asian American Journalists Association
  • Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
  • Association of Alternative Newsmedia
  • Association of Opinion Journalists
  • Bill of Rights Defense Committee & Defending Dissent Foundation
  • CCTV Center for Media & Democracy
  • Center for Scholastic Journalism
  • College Media Association
  • Colorado Press Women
  • Committee to Protect Journalists
  • Demand Progress
  • Freedom of the Press Foundation
  • Inter American Press Association
  • iSolon.org
  • Journalism and Women Symposium
  • Journalism Education Association
  • Local Independent Online News Publishers
  • National Association of Black Journalists
  • National Association of Hispanic Journalists
  • National Association of Science Writers
  • National Federation of Press Women
  • National Press Photographers Association
  • National Scholastic Press Association
  • National Writers Association
  • Native American Journalists Association
  • New England First Amendment Coalition
  • The Poynter Institute
  • Radio Television Digital News Association
  • Religion News Association
  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
  • Reporters Without Borders
  • Society of Environmental Journalists
  • Society of Professional Journalists
  • Student Press Law Center
  • Tully Center for Free Speech
  • UNITY: Journalists for Diversityy

— Background reporting by SPJ staff.