Trashing the “excessive secrecy” of the Bush administration, Barack Obama came into office pledging open government, but he has fallen far short of that promise. Former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie (pictured) released their tough report at the Committee to Protect Journalists on the Obama administration’s tight control and aggressive prosecution of leaks. The first sentence: “In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press.”
What sets the Obama administration apart from others, said Downie, is not its attempt to control the media narrative but rather its shameless ability to do so.
“What’s significant here is the very sophisticated, very successful, very determined way they’ve gone about doing this,” Downie told The Nation magazine. “Most administrations aren’t very successful. This one has been very tightly disciplined.”
Downie was most surprised by the unanimity of those reporters about the ways the administration has made their jobs more difficult, and he compared them to Nixon and the Watergate scandal:
The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate. The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent.
The report includes quotes from reporters like Michael Oreskes, the senior managing editor at the Associated Press. “There’s no question that sources are looking over their shoulders….Sources are more jittery and more standoffish, not just in national security reporting. A lot of skittishness is at the more routine level. The Obama administration has been extremely controlling and extremely resistant to journalistic intervention.”
Ellen Weiss, Washington bureau chief for E.W. Scripps newspapers and stations, said “the Obama administration is far worse than the Bush administration”in trying to thwart accountability reporting about government agencies.
Financial Times correspondent Richard McGregor told me that, after coming to Washington several years ago from a posting in China, he was surprised to find that “covering this White House is pretty miserable in terms of getting anything of substance to report on in what should be a much more open system. If the U.S. starts backsliding, it is not only a bad example for more closed states, but also for other democracies that have been influenced by the U.S.” to make their governments more transparent.
“The Bush administration had a worse reputation,” said Marcus Brauchli, Downie’s immediate successor as executive editor of The Washington Post, “but, in practice, it was much more accepting of the role of journalism in national security.”