xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement

Promises about running a transparent government come easily to politicians on the campaign trail. But those glib assurances have a way of slipping their minds once those politicians are in office and trying to spin everything to their advantage. Often they are also trying to steer massive bureaucracies that have public relations machines and a burning desire to cover up blunders and put everything in the best possible light, not only for the taxpayers but for the boss.

So a transparent government is easier to talk about than to produce. Still, at this point there's reason to wonder whether President Barack Obama is even trying.

Advertisement

Last week the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Newspaper Association and more than 30 other journalism and open government groups sent Obama a letter pointedly reminding him of "your pledge on your first day in office to bring 'a new era of openness' to federal government." In spite of the new president's initial spate of directives and executive orders on this subject, the letter states, the situation has been deteriorating.

Once, reporters could walk the halls of agencies and call on staff people at will. But this has changed in the past two administrations, with employees at most federal agencies barred from communicating with the press unless a public relations staffer sits in. Sometimes these PR people insist on confidentiality even when they have the job title of "spokesman"; sometimes they demand written questions in advance, or send out their own evasive written replies.

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

These are public employees, paid with taxpayer money, trying to restrict what the public can find out about what they are up to. And these agency personnel are usually free to speak as much as they like to others – for instance, lobbyists or other special-interest representatives.

The letter winds up with requests for the president: "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." It also asks for the appointment of an ombudsman "to monitor and enforce your stated goal of restoring transparency to government."

The president has frequently complained about the rise of a cynicism toward government, apparently without suspecting that the government's own "politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies," as the letter puts it, may be a factor .

This letter from leading journalistic organizations gives Obama simple ways to cut down on that cynicism – if he's interested.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement