A consortium of 38 media agencies and transparency advocates sent a searing letter to President Barack Obama on Tuesday, urging the Most Transparent Administration in history to “stop the spin and let the sunshine in.”
The group, led by the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ), highlighted a pattern of stonewalling, attempts at media manipulation and control, and restricted access – all of which, the letter accuses, amounts to “a form of censorship.”
The group cites numerous specific examples of the ways in which the Obama Administration either can’t be bothered to speak to journalists in the field, or forces reporters to obtain the equivalent of a White House permission slip to simply speak to Federal employees and administrators on the public payroll. And, the group asserts, it’s all politically calculated.
There’s the Reuters reporter who couldn’t get the EPA’s public affairs office (yes, the public affairs office) to talk to him about climate change. Or the New York Times story that had to run without comments from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), even though it was about a major CMS rules change that shuffles and expands the nomenclature of medical classifications both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Or the “dozens of instances” in which the Veterans Administration, before the public ever knew about its patient-delay abuses, had failed to respond to reporters seeking information on multiple topics.
It’s an extremely long list.
The group holds Obama squarely accountable for choking out the freedom of the press. “You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government,” it reads. “You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.”
Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.
The stifling of free expression is happening despite your pledge on your first day in office to bring “a new era of openness” to federal government – and the subsequent executive orders and directives which were supposed to bring such openness about.
…It has not always been this way. In prior years, reporters walked the halls of agencies and called staff people at will. Only in the past two administrations have media access controls been tightened at most agencies. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists without surveillance. Meanwhile, agency personnel are free speak to others — lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money — without these controls and without public oversight.
…We ask that you issue a clear directive telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so.
You can read the full letter, as well as a listing of the many frustrated media entities that signed it, at the SPJ’s website.