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UA j-school head presses White House on freedom on information
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UA j-school head presses White House on freedom on information

  •  President Barack Obama delivers an address to the nation on immigration, from the East Room of the White House, Nov. 20, 2014.
    White House photo President Barack Obama delivers an address to the nation on immigration, from the East Room of the White House, Nov. 20, 2014.
  • Cuillier
    Emily Mahoney/Cronkite NewsCuillier

The director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, David Cuillier, was among a group representing more than 50 journalism and open government organizations who pushed the Obama administration on transparency at a meeting Tuesday.

The meeting was a "good start," he said.

Cuillier, the past president of the Society of Professional Journalists, was one of five who met with Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama's press secretary, at the White House. The delegation pushed Earnest on the White House's failure to live up to commitments to openness.

In August, 53 national journalism groups sent a letter to the president, urging changes to federal government policies that restrict reporters — and you — from learning what leaders and regulators are doing. Among the organizations participating in that effort were the SPJ and Local Independent Online News Publishers.

In my role as the founding chairman of LION Publishers, I signed onto that letter, which read in part, that "constraints — essentially forms of censorship — have surged at all levels of government in the past few decades."

"This information suppression is fraught with danger," the letter to Obama said.

"President Obama pledged to lead the most transparent administration in history, but we have yet to see this promise fulfilled," Cuillier said in August. "His term may be coming to a close, but it's not too late to make some real changes in the way officials work with journalists to improve the accuracy and speed in which important information is relayed to the public.

"There was a lot of nodding and smiling, but it was actually a good discussion," he said Wednesday. "Over the years, there's been a lot of us harping on the government ... it's been a war of words. Finally, we got to sit down and talk."

The administration will get back to the delegation in January or February, and "I hope we will be able to continue the conversation from there," Cuillier said.

"Any discussion can be constructive," he said. "Governments feel beat up by the press — that can be city hall or a county government, not just the feds. They have a real different way of looking at information."

The conversation was a "good start," Cuillier said, but noted that the administration only has a year left in office. "We'll have to start over with a new president ... it's important to lay some groundwork now."

From the SPJ:

Four journalists from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and the Legal Counsel for the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) met with Earnest for about an hour to discuss communications policies, the use of Public Information Officers (PIOs) during interviews, anonymous background briefings, prohibitions against staff members speaking to reporters without notifying PIOs, and other policies that prevent information from flowing to the public.

"We asked that the president renew his commitment to transparency in government. The goal of this meeting is to try to bring about a culture change that has pervaded government for several decades," said SPJ President Paul Fletcher.

"We further asked for a clear statement that government employees are free to speak without interference to members of the press and public," he said. "Current policies, we believe, undermine democracy and public trust in our government. We asked for the Obama Administration to reverse that trend."

The meeting follows at least five years of work done by various journalism organizations to study government transparency and the role PIOs or "minders" play in relaying important information to the American public. President Obama promised during his campaign to have the most transparent administration in the White House's history. But journalists say it has become increasingly more difficult to speak to federal agency employees, conduct interviews and obtain information that should be readily available to the general public.

***

(August's) was the second letter the groups sent to the White House regarding government transparency. The first letter, sent July 8, 2014, and a follow-up letter sent Aug. 5, 2014, were met with a response from the White House on Aug. 11, 2014, that the groups found unsatisfactory.

The letters list the following practices as being harmful to the flow of information to the public:

  • Officials blocking reporters' requests to talk to specific staff people;
  • Excessive delays in answering interview requests that stretch past reporters' deadlines;
  • Officials conveying information "on background," refusing to give reporters what should be public information unless they agree not to say who is speaking;
  • Federal agencies blackballing reporters who write critically of them.

"The U.S. Freedom of Information Act turns 50 years old on July 4, making now the perfect time for the president to change these practices and participate in a public dialogue about improving the flow of information to the American people," Fletcher said.

From a Sentinel editorial in August:

Local news reporters aren't often called upon to interview the president, but they do deal with federal officials frequently, said Dylan Smith, chairman of Local Independent Online News Publishers.

"Federal regulators are daily making decisions that have a direct effect on local communities," Smith said. "Whether it's the environment, or business, law enforcement or transportation funding, their power extends far from Washington, D.C. Sadly, too often they are not responsive to questions from journalists — and regular citizens — seeking to understand and explain what their actions will mean to local residents."

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, said the policies referred to in the August letter "fundamentally restrict the quality of the information that citizens get about what government agencies are doing. When researchers, administrators and experts cannot speak freely, it becomes impossible to get a full and honest picture of a government program or policy. Such secrecy only fuels distrust and gives members of the public a right to wonder what is being done in their name, with their money."

In addition to Flether and Cuillier, who is also the former Freedom of Information chair of SPJ, those attending the White House meeting this week were:

  • Kathryn Foxhall, SPJ FOI committee member
  • Tim Wheeler, SEJ FOI Task Force chair
  • Kevin Goldberg, ASNE legal counsel

"It is our hope that this discussion will persuade President Obama to renew his commitment to transparency and set a gold standard to be carried on by the next president of the United States," Fletcher said.

Beth Parke, executive director for the Society of Environmental Journalists, agreed that when interviews are denied or delayed, when environmental test results, enforcement data or scientific findings are suppressed, the public is cheated.

"Readers, viewers and listeners rely on local media. What's safe to drink when a spill causes a water crisis? What does it mean when oil-by-rail explodes? When press officers block access to people who could answer detailed questions, there are consequences — for public health and for democracy. We have a right to know, and journalists have a job to do," Parke said in August.

"Social media messaging is not transparency," she said. "Connecting journalists who have questions to people with answers who can speak on the record is transparency. Public access to government science is transparency."

Never before has such a broad-based coalition of journalism and good-governance organizations spoken out on this issue. The growing number of examples of "mediated access" have not just frustrated journalists but have led to specific cases of important information not reaching the public.

"Transparency can't just be a buzzword or an applause line," said Joshua Hatch, board vice president and Legal Committee chair for the Online News Association. "It has to be a commitment from the highest levels to every hall of government. Without it, journalists are hamstrung, the public is kept in the dark and democracy suffers."

Knocking on the White House door

The 53 groups who signed the August letter pushing the federal government to be more transparent were:

  • American Copy Editors Society
  • American Society of Journalists and Authors
  • American Society of News Editors
  • Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association
  • Asian American Journalists Association
  • Associated Collegiate Press
  • Association of Alternative Newsmedia
  • Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
  • Association of Opinion Journalists
  • Bill of Rights Defense Committee
  • Center for Media & Democracy
  • Center for Scholastic Journalism
  • College Media Association
  • Colorado Press Women
  • Committee to Protect Journalists
  • Defending Dissent Foundation
  • Demand Progress
  • Education Writers Association
  • Freedom of the Press Foundation
  • Government Accountability Project
  • Investigative Reporters & Editors
  • iSolon.org
  • Journalism Education Association
  • Local Independent Online News Publishers
  • Media Freedom Foundation
  • Minnesota High School Press Association
  • National Association of Hispanic Journalists
  • National Federation of Press Women
  • National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association
  • National Press Photographers Association
  • National Scholastic Press Association
  • Native American Journalists Association
  • New England First Amendment Coalition
  • The NewsGuild - Communications Workers of America
  • Online News Association
  • OpenTheGovernment.org
  • PEN American Center
  • The Poynter Institute
  • Project Censored
  • Project On Government Oversight
  • Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
  • Radio Television Digital News Association
  • Regional Reporters Association
  • Religion Newswriters Association
  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
  • Reporters Without Borders
  • Society of Environmental Journalists
  • Society of Professional Journalists
  • Student Press Law Center
  • Sunlight Foundation
  • Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University
  • UNITY
  • Virginia Professional Communicators

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