Cumberland Times-News

Opinion

July 9, 2014

Scathing

Groups lash Obama for lack of openness in government

— A  letter of protest from 38 journalism and open-government groups to President Obama over his administration’s lack of transparency and openness could not have been more blunt.

The opening paragraph stated:

“You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. 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.”

Among organizations signing the letter is the National Newspaper Association, whose membership includes the Cumberland Times-News.

Describing the lack of access, the letter also said, in part:

“Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level. Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations.

“Contact is often blocked completely. When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title ‘spokesperson.’

“Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers. Agencies hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.

“In many cases, this is clearly being done to control what information journalists — and the audience they serve — have access to. A survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote.”

Although the Times-News has more dealings with state and local government, we, too, have experienced difficulties getting information from some federal agencies.

Additionally, it seems more common that state and local government block off access to government personnel, steering our reporters to an “official spokesman” or limiting our interaction to email exchanges, rather than permitting us to do first-hand interviews.

For example, one of our reporters working a story about the Rocky Gap Veterans Cemetery was not allowed to speak with the superintendent there.

Instead, the reporter was shuffled off to a downstate community outreach person with the Maryland Veterans Administration, who provided by email cut-and-paste policy out of a manual, and who had no up-close-and-personal, day-to-day knowledge of the facility as does the superintendent.

All of us suffer when government tries to spin the news or stifle journalists.

President Obama has said his is “the most transparent administration in history” but, like many state and local governments, it is anything but.

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