President Obama is stifling free expression, suppressing news and imposing censorship on the press, a letter from 38 prominent organizations of journalists alleges.
Leaders of virtually every major journalist group in the country signed the letter sent to the White House on July 8.
“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.”
The letter, signed by David Cuillier, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, and others, goes on to accuse Obama of hypocrisy about freedom of the press. It also alleges that the Obama administration has implemented a deliberate policy of suppression of information and lack of transparency.
“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.”
Journalists’ Letter Exposes Pattern of Suppression of News
The letter notes some very troubling trends at government agencies that Obama seems to have thrown his weight behind. Some of the most damaging charges include:
- “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.”
- Federal agencies “hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.”
- Reporters often are asked to provide “questions in advance” – a practice traditionally seen as taboo among journalists.
- Public affairs or public information officers are increasingly speaking anonymously to the press and being cited as anonymous sources in stories – even through their title is “spokesperson.”
Meanwhile, agency personnel are free to speak to others — lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money – “without these controls and without public oversight.” One survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers “admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote.” The survey was conducted by Carolyn Carlson, a professor at Kennesaw State University.
Examples of Interference with Reporters Documented
Carlson noted a long list of examples of interference with reporters and documented many of them on her blog:
- The Bureau of Indian Affairs is deliberately denying access to Native American reporters, Mary Hartz, the president of the Native American Journalists Association, alleged.
- The EPA has refused to divulge the identity of sources of information about its new air pollution rules. Reporter Don Hopey complained that an EPA press conference didn’t provide him with enough information about the rules to write a story. Additionally, the EPA has an official rule preventing all staff members except public information officers from having contact with members of the media, and reporters are actually barred from most EPA facilities.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has told a number of reporters that they can only speak to public relations people.
This is not the first time such charges have been made against the Obama administration. Last year former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. compared Obama’s policies toward the press to those of Richard Nixon, as Off The Grid News reported. A study prepared by Downie also accused the administration of using enforcement and prosecution to intimidate reporters and sources into silence.
The journalist groups ended their letter by urging Obama to end the restriction of information to journalists. They also asked for a major effort to restore transparency to the federal government and to get an ombudsman to oversee that effort.
“This is not a ‘press vs. government’ issue,” the letter stated. “This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions.”
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