This is a guest post by DC-based journalist Kathryn Foxhall.
After eight months the White House is not answering the complaints of journalism and other groups that the Obama Administration has entrenched the practice of prohibiting federal employees to speak to journalists without surveillance by public information offices, and that it often blocks them from communicating at all.
A year ago 53 national organizations sent a letter to Obama urging changes to these policies that constrict information flow. The groups also complained about agencies holding official briefings “on background,” restricting reporters from naming the officials who are talking.
In December, a delegation led by SPJ met with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and others on the issue. Despite a promise that officials would get back to SPJ, emails to Earnest and Eric Schultz, Principal Deputy Press Secretary, have gone unanswered.
“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. It’s sad that after 53 organizations tell a White House that the silencing of millions of people is a hazard to the public, the Administration decides not to discuss it.”
The delegation to the White House included representatives from SPJ, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of News Editors. They told Earnest, among other things, that these restrictions often hide things from the press and that many times when the press doesn’t know something about federal agencies, the White House itself doesn’t know.
Earnest said he thought PIOs should be coordinating the conversations and that it is part of the journalism skill set to get a person to talk even with someone else in the room.
SPJ’s Walsh said, “We still have a special plea to President Obama not to leave these controls in place. The restrictions routinely withhold information from the public.”
SPJ has sponsored seven surveys that show these restrictions have become pervasive in federal offices, state and local governments, schools and universities and other entities in many areas of the nation.
The fact that blatant information control has become a cultural norm makes it all the more important for President Obama to use his moral suasion to speak out against it and begin the change starting at the federal level, Walsh said.
The need for that is illustrated in the recent Department of Justice report showing rampant civil rights violations by the Baltimore Police Department. Just five months ago SPJ-sponsored surveys found that over half reporters covering police say they can rarely or never interview police officers without involving a police department public information officer.
Police department PIOs in the surveys said they monitor press interviews with police officers for reasons such as, “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.” Half of police PIOs said there were reporters or media outlets they would not allow to speak with officers due to “problems” with the reporters’ stories in the past.
“The Justice Department report shows there can be appalling things locked in an internal culture for many years. The SPJ survey shows police departments use PIOs to actively stop things from coming out. The same is true of federal agencies and other entities that prohibit or chill communication,” said Walsh. “We are asking President Obama whether he really wants institutions to hinder the press from understanding such critical information. Eight months later, we are still waiting for his answer.”
Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- National Blogs
- Freedom of the Prez [SPJ President]
- FOI FYI [Freedom of Information]
- The Independent Journalist [Freelance]
- Net Worked [Digital Journalism]
- SPJ Works [SPJ HQ]
- First Draft [Generation J]
- Who's News? [Diversity]
- Code Words [Journalism Ethics]
- Journalism and the World [Global Journalism]
- The Campus Copy [Students]
- SPJ Member Spotlight [Membership]
- Stay Tuned [Studio SPJ]
- The Leading Edge [SPJ Leadership]
- Classrooms & Newsrooms [Journalism Education]
- SPJ Nomenclature [SPJ Name Change]
- Regional Blogs
- Bylines & Deadlines [Region 1]
- The Mid-Atlantic Muckraker [Region 2]
- Mouth of the South [Region 3]
- 4th Estate [Region 4]
- Take 5 [Region 5]
- Write Rite [Region 6]
- The Heartland Beat [Region 7]
- Rocky Mountain SPJ [Region 9]
- The X Factor [Region 10]
- Western Tales [Region 11]
- River Region SPJ [Region 12]