In response to Obama’s concerns about Americans’ cynicism poisoning democracy, media organizations ask him “to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.”
The Society of Professional Journalists, an advocacy group that works to improve journalism and protect journalists, and 37 other media organizations sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Tuesday, asking him to help save democracy by running the government in a more transparent manner.
Release of the letter comes after Obama told a crowd in Minneapolis last month that the American public is becoming more and more cynical, and increasingly believes that the political realm in Washington is broken beyond repair.
Obama warned that this pessimistic attitude has allowed lawmakers to continue their partisan feuds, since many Americans often opt to not vote when they are disillusioned with Washington — a topic he has addressed in political fundraisers, commencement speeches and his meeting with Pope Francis.
“It’s easy to be cynical. In fact, these days it’s kind of trendy,” Obama said last month in Minneapolis. “Cynicism is a choice, and hope is a better choice.”
Obama may see the gridlock in Washington as the biggest threat to the success of democracy, but media organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists view the growing distrust Americans have for all three branches of government as a result of the media being denied access to information and sources. (Full disclosure: The writer of this story is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.)
“You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government,” the letter begins. “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.”
While the media organizations note that this is not a “press vs. government” issue, they also say that in order to have a strong, functioning democracy, people must have access to information so they are able to self-govern and trust government institutions.
“Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees,” the letter continues. “This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”
Accusing the Obama administration of censorship may sound harsh, but according to a survey conducted by Carolyn Carlson, an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University, 40 percent of public information officers have blocked reporters from accessing information or talking to sources if the “PIOs” didn’t like the story the reporter was working on.
A majority of the reporters surveyed interpret the blockades they face by PIOs as a form of censorship, arguing that their inability to gather information or speak to sources impedes their ability to provide information to the public. As one reporter told Carlson, “A few years ago, top officials for a city government I covered told staff members they were not to talk with me.
“Myself and another reporter had exposed a corrupt nonprofit housing agency and mismanagement of millions of dollars in federal housing funds the city had received. Our editors and I complained about the situation, we filed numerous public records requests for the information we were seeking, and eventually the city relaxed the restrictions. The department manager over the city’s housing programs never agreed to interviews with me again.”
Government officials have argued in recent years that controlling media access is not about censorship, but rather about ensuring that the information given to reporters is accurate. But as the letter to Obama points out, journalists’ access to government agencies hasn’t always been as restrictive as it is now.
“In prior years, reporters walked the halls of agencies and called staff people at will,” the letter says. “Only in the past two administrations have media access controls been tightened at most agencies. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists without surveillance. Meanwhile, agency personnel are free speak to others — lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money — without these controls and without public oversight.”
Given that reporters covering a wide range of topics — from Native American issues to the environment to health issues — have all faced arguably unnecessary obstacles, the media organizations ask Obama to “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.”
“We believe that is one of the most important things you can do for the nation now, before the policies become even more entrenched,” the letter notes.
“We also ask you provide an avenue through which any incidents of this suppression of communication may be reported and corrected. Create an ombudsman to monitor and enforce your stated goal of restoring transparency to government and giving the public the unvarnished truth about its workings. That will go a long way toward dispelling Americans’ frustration and cynicism before it further poisons our democracy.”