On Tuesday, as President Barack Obama winged his way to Colorado to hold a fundraiser for Sen. Mark Udall who was — wink, wink — too “busy” in Washington, D.C., to attend, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Colorado Press Women and 36 other journalism groups sent a letter to Obama castigating his administration for being a major source of the national frustration that is “breeding cynicism about democratic government.”
Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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Most damning, the letter accuses the administration of blocking the media from access to federal government employees while allowing “lobbyists, special-interest representatives, [and] people with money” to have unfettered access.
Addressed to Obama, the letter opens with these three paragraphs.
“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.
“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.”
While presenting specific examples that amount to an indictment of the methods the administration employs to “control what information journalists — and the audience they serve — have access to,” the letter notes that “when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. This is not a ‘press vs. government’ issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions.”
It’s worth mentioning that in addition to this unprecedented group letter, individual journalists and legal commentators who are politically and philosophically aligned with Obama are now condemning his use of undemocratic tactics across a range of issues.
For example, in a recent USA Today column criticizing Obama’s “extra-constitutional” use of executive power, “Obama’s imperial overreach,” Kirsten Powers concluded:
“Like a handful of liberal voices, at the same time I support most of Obama's domestic policy initiatives, including those he accomplished through executive action, I can't support the way he has put them in place. We elected Obama president, not emperor.”
And Professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School, a constitutional law scholar who correctly and repeatedly admonished President George W. Bush for overstepping his presidential authority, stated in congressional testimony that Obama’s dictates have become a danger to the liberty interests of Americans.
“The danger is quite severe. The problem with what the president is doing is that he's not simply posing a danger to the constitutional system. He's becoming the very danger the Constitution was designed to avoid.”
Returning to this week’s letter from the journalist organizations, it’s worth noting that while the thrust of the letter is directed at federal practices, there are several references to problems with public agencies at all levels of government.
Arguably, the increasingly aggressive stance taken by the federal government when it comes to blocking media access to public information may be serving as an example that state and local governments are imitating.
It is certainly true in the Steamboat Springs, Routt County and Colorado governments, with troubling incidents documented by the Steamboat Pilot & Today and CompleteColorado.com in “Let the sun shine in,” “A battle worth fighting” and “State agencies stonewall, stall on deleted emails of key bureaucrat,” respectively.
Because of that reality, the journalists’ request that Obama “seek an end to this restraint on communication in federal agencies” as a means “toward dispelling Americans’ frustration and cynicism before it further poisons our democracy” is a prescription that state and local officials should follow as well.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @RobDouglas3