Transparency: Still a Legacy Problem with the Obama Administration

September 7, 2016

It's legacy time at the Obama White House, and after eight years, many in the news media are not convinced that President Obama's has been "the most transparent administration in history" — as he promised and claimed.

Transparent? Really? Not so much, according to many journalists in the trenches, and a large number of news media and journalism groups who have asked for more from the White House and not heard back.

To be fair, the Obama administration has made many significant steps forward on openness. Press Secretary Josh Earnest highlighted a few of them (there are more) in an August 30, 2016, letter to the New York Times. Perhaps it was cut for length, but the printed letter did not even mention that Obama this year signed legislation improving the Freedom of Information Act. But even writing the letter opened some old wounds.

One of reporters' biggest beefs is the barriers that press officers put up between the media and government officials. The Society of Environmental Journalists and some 52 other journalism groups wrote Obama August 10, 2015, asking him to end agency press office restrictions that prevent reporters from talking to government employees. That led to a December 15, 2016, meeting between J-group representatives and Josh Earnest. Earnest raised hopes of a fuller response to journalists' concerns at that meeting — but nothing of substance has been forthcoming in the time since them.

Despite talk of transparency, the policy seems to be controlling access to control the message, at most federal press operations, from U.S. EPA to the White House itself.

Health journalist Kathryn Foxhall recited this sad narrative in a September 3 post in the Society of Professional Journalists' FOI blog.

"We don’t even know if President Obama has been advised of our complaint," said Lynn Walsh, SPJ’s President-elect. "He’s spoken to press groups at least twice without mentioning it."

SPJ and other groups are likely to keep pressing the point, because President Obama — by resetting the norm in his final days — could influence the behavior of the next administration. And transparency may well be even more of a problem in the next administration, no matter who is elected.

The New York Times' media columnist Jim Rutenberg raised some of the transparency issues haunting the Trump and Clinton presidential campaigns in an August 28 piece. It was, in fact, this piece on "Plane Rides and Presidential Transparency" that prompted Earnest's letter to the Times.