After revelations show that the Obama administration uses reporters’ FOIA requests as a tip service, did the mainstream media create a monster that they can’t tame?
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, D.C. CORRESPONDENT, TRNN: In the D.C. newsroom of McClatchy newspapers, White House correspondent Anita Kumar says covering the White House is becoming more and more challenging. Kumar, like all journalists in the White House press corps, has to file pool reports, which are reports of the president’s daily activities that go out to members of the White House press corps and thousands of others. But to get those reports out, the White House must distribute them.
ANITA KUMAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: –the White House, who actually distributes the pool reports, though they aren’t supposed to have any control over it, have actually asked people to change something in the reports. Now, that has happened to me one time that I can think of.
DESVARIEUX: That one time is related to President Obama taping an interview on The Jay Leno Show. Kumar said that she wrote about comments that the president made related to President Putin’s stance on gay rights. She was surprised to find that the White House told her to edit her work.
KUMAR: It was his first remarks about a situation with President Putin of Russia–not Ukraine; it was before that; but they have had some issues for a while now. And it was a pretty newsy interview with Jay Leno. And so I wrote up quite a lot, and I tried to be very fast, and I sent it out in a pool report, maybe more than one pool report. And I was actually told by someone at the White House that–it was sort of sent back to me, and said, you’ve written too much, and we need to cut back on that, or you need to cut back on that. And it made me very uncomfortable. And that’s just not the way to me it’s supposed to work, where they’re supposed to be telling me what I can put out and what I couldn’t put out.
DESVARIEUX: Editing pool reports is just one of the grievances that reporters are calling the administration out on. The Associated Press White House bureau chief Sally Buzbee recently wrote an article called “8 ways the Obama administration is blocking information”. Buzbee points to how the Obama administration is using the Freedom of Information Act as a tip service to uncover what reporters are pursuing. Also she said day-to-day intimidation of sources is chilling, and said, quote, “Government press officials say their orders are to squelch anything controversial or that makes the administration look bad.” Obama has defended himself, saying that he is the most transparent president in U.S. history. After all, back in 2007, the president ran on the promise of being open and transparent.
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: So that anyone can ensure that our business is the people’s business. As Justice Louis Brandeis once said, sunlight is the greatest disinfectant. And as president, I’m going to make it impossible for congressmen or lobbyists to slip porkbarrel projects or corporate welfare into laws when no one’s looking, because when I’m president, meetings where laws are written will be more open to the public. No more secrecy. That’s a commitment I make to you as president.
KUMAR: If you say it, it really should be the most transparent, or otherwise people are going to criticize you for that. I think that’s why he sort of set himself apart. So when you talk to a lot of these groups that monitor it, they will say, well, he criticized, he says he is the most, and so that’s why it’s a little bit, they feel, hypocritical.
President Obama, and with help from his attorney general, they have gone after more journalists than any other president in history. I mean, I think the statistics easily show that.
DESVARIEUX: But what about the media itself? We ask Kumar why the White House press corps doesn’t distribute its own lists.
KUMAR: It’s hard to figure out a way to do that unless we just take over the entire list and distribute it ourselves. And there’s lots of ways to do that. But that just hasn’t happened yet.
DESVARIEUX: But cofounder of RootsAction.org Norman Solomon said that the media is partially responsible for what’s happening to the press. He said that there are institutional structural issues within the corporate media that are largely compliant with the president’s agenda.
NORMAN SOLOMON, COFOUNDER, ROOTSACTION.ORG: There are many reporters who are very happy to go along to get along, and they are given information as sort of rewards for not challenging the especially so-called national security establishment. And it’s very true that this is a pattern that had been with us probably throughout the history of the country, that the most powerful media outlets are way too close to power. In fact, they are part of the power structure.
DESVARIEUX: That power can be seen with exclusive access that the president grants journalists. For example, before the president’s speech to attack Syria in his fight against the Islamic State, President Obama met with a dozen columnists from prominent publications, like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. Some reporters, like White House correspondent for the National Journal George Condon, isn’t concerned that the White House selects a few reporters to brief, or even asks them to edit their pool reports. He said, after covering the White House since the ’80s, the Obama administration is no less transparent than previous administrations.
GEORGE CONDON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NATIONAL JOURNAL: Every president is more restrictive on the press that the president before. They all learn from the president before. They all look for ways to get around the White House press corps. Nixon created the office of Director of Communications strictly to get around the White House press corps. Bill Clinton joked that he did Larry King because he could get around us. George W. Bush would go on the road just to get around us. Gerald Ford did press conferences that excluded the White House press corps in cities like Columbus, Ohio. So they all look for ways. There’s nothing unique about President Obama on that. But his people are very good at restricting what we have. What every president wants is it to have us writing about what they want us to be writing about, and what the press always does is not go along with what the government’s set agenda is. So there’s always a tension there.
DESVARIEUX: The Obama administration has been bypassing the mainstream media by putting out their own message with social media, like the president’s Twitter feed, his Facebook page, and Instagram. That means the press gets official photos instead of photos taken by an independent photojournalist. Some critics say it’s also looking to control journalists’ ability to use confidential sources, like in the case of New York Times reporter James Risen. The Justice Department is calling for Risen to reveal his source about a failed CIA operation called Operation Merlin.
SOLOMON: Here you have a CIA operation which happened in early 2000 during the Clinton administration. It was exposed by the New York Times reporter James Risen not in that newspaper, which was unwilling to print the information, but in his book published in early 2006 called State of War. And James Risen, by exposing the CIA’s Operation Merlin, actually incurred the wrath of the Bush Department of Justice and continues to be under legal siege from the Obama Department of Justice.
DESVARIEUX: But Attorney General Eric Holder testified that he won’t prosecute reporters.
ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: [A]s long as I have the privilege of serving as attorney general of the United States, [the Justice Department] will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job.
DESVARIEUX: Risen said that he is willing to go to jail to protect his source. And this week he had this to say about the administration. He said, quote, “I don’t think any of this would be happening under the Obama administration if Obama didn’t want to do it.” “I think Obama hates the press. I think he doesn’t like the press and he hates leaks.”
Solomon points to the Risen case as what he calls a battle for the First Amendment.
SOLOMON: This is a battle going on right now. And I think it’s important for us to put this in a context where it’s not only a matter of protecting confidential sources and whistleblowers, as important as those protections are. We have the head of national intelligence, James Clapper, issuing an order that throughout all of the intelligence agencies no information of an unclassified nature, even if there’s no classification issue at all, no information is to be provided by anyone to the press without authorization from above. There is an ongoing effort to instill fear and trepidation and a sort of a informer culture throughout the government–that’s not hyperbolic.
If we can’t have this journalists confidential sources who have confidence that those confidential relationships will be maintained and respected, then we can’t have investigative journalism worthy of the name. And if we can’t have journalism that’s independent and investigative, then essentially what we’re going to have, for the most part, is Clear Channel Communications from the government to the public and not much else. So we would get the uninformed consent of the governed, which is antithetical to democracy, and the First Amendment will be essentially a hollow shell if in fact we don’t get information unless the government wants us to have it.
For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.
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