The Case of the Secret Openness Award

April 6, 2011

In a world of "Gotcha" journalism, even the open-government beat has its "Gotcha" stories. So it was with President Obama's secret openness award.

Look, we are trying to be fair and accurate here. But the presentation of an openness award behind closed doors provokes more notice than an announced press briefing. There was nothing unfactual in the Associated Press story of April 1 (not a joke):

"WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama accepted an award for making the government more open and transparent — presented to him behind closed doors with no news coverage or public access allowed," began the AP story.

There was a lot more to it than that. But the event offered evidence that Obama's minders may be the worst enemies of his presidency — and that the PR professionals are badly fumbling the PR ball.

A collection of freedom-of-information groups like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, OMB Watch, National Security Archive, Project on Government Oversight, and OpenTheGovernment.org did go to the White House on March 28, to give Obama an award for his openness efforts — which have been substantial and in many cases reversed the secrecy of the Bush administration. Obama met with them, accepted the award, and engaged in a frank two-way discussion about FOI progress and problems.

The open-gov community appreciated this. The RCFP story on the event called it "the first time that longtime open government advocates in Washington recalled a sitting president meeting with them to discuss government transparency."

But the minders hid Obama's light under a bushel. Their first flub was canceling the March 15 date for the meeting. March 15 was National FOI Day — a special occasion for the FOI community, and a day when he would have been a lead-pipe cinch to get some good ink. They rescheduled it to March 28, and then went back on assurances that it would be open to the press. In fact, it was not even listed on his public daily schedule.

The Associated Press — as was its duty — evenhandedly cudgeled the President about the head and shoulders for this flub.

But the groups themselves seemed to feel that their point had been lost in the media coverage. Gary Bass of OMB Watch recognized Obama's openness achievements, but called the handlers' handling "boneheaded." Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, later emphasized how productive the meeting had been — along with later meetings with key Obama aides.

In its sparse coverage, the news media quickly made the event into ammunition for partisan warfare (as it is wont to do). And perhaps missed the story about the war within the factions and agencies of the Obama administration itself over whether the President's openness decrees are merely rhetoric — or whether they are to be followed.