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GUEST COMMENTARY: Obama's transparency proves cloudier than ever

Monday, April 4, 2011 | 12:39 p.m. CDT

The day after his inauguration, President Obama promised a new era of "openness in government."

"We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration," he wrote in one of his first memos to federal agencies. "Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government."

But the reality has not matched the president's rhetoric. We, presidents of two of the nation's largest journalism organizations, and many of our thousands of members, have found little openness since Obama took office. If anything, the administration has gone in the opposite direction: imposing restrictions on reporters' newsgathering that exceed even the constraints put in place by President George W. Bush.

Democrats criticized the Bush administration for not making decisions based on the best science. But the Obama administration now muzzles scientists and experts within federal agencies. When they are allowed to talk about important public health issues, a chaperone often supervises every word. These constraints keep the public from learning whether decisions are science-based or politically motivated.

Consider these few examples:

  •  After last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists and environmental groups accused the administration of hiding or underreporting the extent of the spill and its impact on the environment. Federal officials frequently deferred to BP in providing data on issues from cleanup workers' health problems to oil spill flow estimates. The government also placed restrictions on airspace for weeks, keeping media photographers from seeing the scope of the spill.
  •  The Food and Drug Administration placed an unusual restriction on reporters when announcing changes to its medical device approval process this year. In exchange for providing the information to the media ahead of time, reporters were told they could not seek insights from outside experts before the formal announcement. This ensured the first version of the story contained only the FDA's official position and ran counter to the way medical journals handle such embargoes.
  •  In more than a third of requests made for public records last year, the administration failed to provide any information at all, the Associated Press reported. Despite an increase in requests, the Obama administration is releasing fewer records under the Freedom of Information Act than the Bush administration did. And when a response is provided, it often is incomplete or comes years later. The AP noted ironically that the Obama administration even censored 194 pages of internal e-mails about its Open Government Directive.

Our members have seen this phenomenon day in and day out, impeding their ability to give readers a complete picture of their government's actions and omissions.

At one time reporters easily could access the experts conducting research and scientific studies on the public's behalf, ensuring their stories were accurate and rich in context. Over the years, political appointees have built up a message-control machinery that has taken on a life of its own, becoming so unwieldy that it chews up even the most routine requests for information. The Obama administration, despite its pledges of transparency, has instead perpetuated and built upon this system.

The Obama administration has put reams of data online detailing many aspects of government operations. This information is useful, but it's merely a matter of the government posting what it wants when it wants, on sites most citizens would never think to visit.

Meanwhile, reporters' questions often go unanswered. When replies are given, they frequently are more scripted than meaningful. Public employees generally are required to obtain permission to share their expertise, and when interviews are allowed, a media "handler" is listening in to keep control over what is said. And when replies come via e-mail, it's unclear who has written them.

We can't see how that could promote public understanding of government, science and health policy.

We understand that responding to the media takes time, that online news outlets and blogs have proliferated and that cash-strapped agencies need to manage carefully their staffers' time. But if the focus were on openness rather than control, these challenges could be met successfully.

We encourage the Obama administration to pledge to answer reporters' questions more quickly and with fewer scripted answers from political appointees. We hope it will put more effort into releasing information rather than punishing those who leak it. We look forward to the day when scientists and experts can once again be free to share their knowledge, without fear of retribution or scolding.

"Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing." Those were President Obama's own words when he took office.

We couldn't agree more.

Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization in New York, and president of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Hagit Limor is an investigative reporter at WCPO-TV in Cincinnati and president of the Society of Professional Journalists. This guest commentary was first published by The Washington Post


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