It should come as no surprise to anyone who keeps an eye on the daily press briefings at the White House — and the far less frequent presidential press conferences. The Obama administration is beyond prickly. It’s often hostile to journalists, particularly to those who ask the tough questions.
And its treatment of whistleblowers sets a dangerous precedent for our democracy.
Those are the findings of a new study by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, an agency that usually spends its energies defending reporters jailed and persecuted in backward countries.
But the group recognized the chilling effect the Obama administration’s policies have on the profession.
“U.S. President Barack Obama came into office pledging open government, but he has fallen short of his promise,” the report says. “Journalists and transparency advocates say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press. Aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.”
The administration goes after those who spill secrets.
“Six government employees, plus two contractors including Edward Snowden, have been subjects of felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press — compared with a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations,” the report notes. “Still more criminal investigations into leaks are under way.”
That includes electronic surveillance of reporters.
“I worry now about calling somebody because the contact can be found out through a check of phone records or e-mails,” national security reporter R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity told the CPJ. “It leaves a digital trail that makes it easier for the government to monitor those contacts.”
And that’s a problem, a New York Times reporter adds.
“Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions,” Scott Shane says. “They’re scared to death. There’s a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone. It’s having a deterrent effect. If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.”
Consider this quote from the chief Washington reporter for the New York Times (a newspaper as friendly as any to the Obama administration): “This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
And for the news outlets that do ask the tough questions?
“Designated administration spokesmen are often unresponsive or hostile to press inquiries, even when reporters have been sent to them by officials who won’t talk on their own,” the report says. “Despite President Barack Obama’s repeated promise that his administration would be the most open and transparent in American history, reporters and government transparency advocates said they are disappointed by its performance in improving access to the information they need.”
Again, this isn’t really news, at least not to those who watch the news. But it should be a wake-up call for Washington.