Candidates' lack of transparency part of a trend that's bad for democracy

All of us lose when we are forced to vote with as little information as we have about Clinton, Trump.

A 70-year-old reality TV star running for president shared a sketchy two-page health summary with a doctor-host on a syndicated daytime show and had the gall to boast of his transparency compared to that of his opponent.

His 68-year-old opponent, meanwhile, kept a diagnosis of pneumonia secret until a citizen videographer captured her stumbling into a van and the video went viral. She then defended her lack of disclosure by saying she didn't think the fact that she had pneumonia was a big deal. Reacting to the avalanche of coverage about her health that followed, she subsequently released an equally sketchy two-page letter from her physician saying she is "fit to serve" as president.

By comparison, in 2008, John McCain, the then-71-year-old Republican presidential candidate, released 1,173 pages of his medical records to a group of 20 reporters from major news outlets for review.

Do the math and weep.

Less than two months out from one of the most important presidential elections in a generation, it is long past time to ask how we got to this sorry state of political and media affairs. On Wednesday, most of the nation's political press corps was kept on hold for 24 hours, waiting for an episode of "The Dr. Oz Show" to air so that they could more fully report the two pages of medical information Donald Trump deigned to share during a taping of the TV doctor's show.

The missing medical data of the baby boomer candidates is only the latest symptom of a serious disease that has been eating away at our democracy in recent years: the incredible shrinking access by the media to the kinds of information citizens need most in making decisions about their lives. You might like to see the press ridiculed by Trump or kept at arm's length by Hillary Clinton, but all of us lose when we are forced to vote with as little information as we have about these two elderly candidates.

The problem extends far beyond presidential politics. Some days it feels as if everyone in power got a memo saying, "Give the public nothing. Keep everything secret. Make them file Freedom of Information Act requests for every crumb of data, and then drag your heels forever in complying. And if any of the information under the FOIA would make us look bad, simply don't share it. Let them take us to court."

In 2013, the Associated Press wanted to look at Clinton's calendar and schedules during her tenure as secretary of state.

That might seem like a reasonable enough request: citizens getting a chance to see how a presidential candidate scheduled her time and who got access to her while she held high national office.

But the State Department "would not acknowledge even that it had the material," according to an AP account written in June of its efforts to gain access.

The news agency finally sued the State Department in March 2015 after what it described as "nearly two years of delay."

The department agreed in a court filing in August 2015 to turn over Clinton's calendar, and finally provided some of the documents in November.

Sadly, nondisclosure has come to be the rule rather than the exception in public life.

Here in Baltimore, the school board hired a new superintendent in secret this year and acted as if it were doing a good thing.

"When it comes to their secret search for a new city schools CEO, the school board wasn't even transparent in explaining its lack of transparency," a Baltimore Sun editorial said. "That's the unsettling conclusion to be drawn from school board Chairman Marnell Cooper's shifting story about how the board managed to hire a search firm without leaving a trace in public records."

But the school board is the junior varsity squad when it comes to secrecy compared to the Baltimore Police Department. Commissioner Kevin Davis, who has repeatedly vowed to be more transparent, was anything but in the secret deal he cut to get a spy plane flying over the city that even the mayor and governor didn't know about initially.

I covered the intersection of media and politics in Detroit and Dallas before coming to Baltimore, and I have never seen anything like the love of secrecy and closed doors that permeates city government and politics here.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how heartsick I felt after months of trying to report the sources of dark money being spent on political advertising in the Baltimore market during the primary season. Beyond the super PACs and the politicians, even some media outlets here were trying to keep me and others from informing citizens about the people behind the ads and the amounts of money they were spending.

We didn't get here overnight. The battle between American politicians and the press is hardly new. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 gave President John Adams the power to jail publishers of pamphlets and articles about him and his administration that he considered libelous. Spurred on by his wife, Abigail, he was not shy about using it on his critics.

But it feels as if we have reached a modern-era tipping point during the past decade. One cause is surely the attitude of President Barack Obama toward the press.

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen, whom the Obama administration pursued with the threat of jail for five years for his refusal to reveal a source, called Obama "the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation."

Eric Holder, Obama's attorney general, went so far as to try to make reporting on certain government affairs a criminal act. In 2013, it was revealed that Holder had described Fox News reporter James Rosen as an "aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator" in a warrant aimed at gaining access to his emails.

That same year, 34 news organizations, including the Associated Press and The New York Times, wrote a letter to Obama's press secretary protesting the way the administration was increasingly restricting access.

"Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties," the letter said. "As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist's camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government."

There are other large forces behind the shrinking access, such as the economics of the newspaper industry. Fewer papers have the resources to keep going to court like the AP or New York Times to gain access. And once politicians and leaders with a penchant for conducting public business in private came to understand that, they closed even more doors.

TV has played a major role as well, minimizing costs by letting what's left of the legacy print industry do the hard, expensive and dirty work of investigative reporting. Meanwhile, they give candidates like Trump and Clinton relatively free rides — allowing phone-in interviews, friendly town hall telecasts with candidates and families, and an army of pro-and-con talking heads, some of whom are still on candidate payrolls.

And both candidates have big-time spin machines that relentlessly attack the press. Clinton's team features some of the best strategic communications and political operatives in the business, like David Brock, founder of Media Matters. Trump now has alt-right might on his side since bringing on Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, as his campaign CEO. The core strategy of both sides is to shred the media messenger when the message about their candidate is unfavorable.

Dr. Oz doesn't ask nasty questions. And he plays along with the cheesy TV charade when the candidate asks audience members if they would like him to share his medical information — and then gives the false appearance of doing so, as Trump did Wednesday with his two pages of flimsy data.

This is what the conversation of democracy looks and sounds like in the Land of Oz, where the press has such limited access.

How do you like it now?

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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