President Barack Obama leaves a news conference in the White House press briefing room in Washington, March 6, 2012. (Reuters/Jason Reed)
Today the Committee to Protect Journalists unveiled a detailed, sober assessment of press freedom in the United States during President Obama’s tenure. The report concluded that far from fulfilling his campaign promise to improve transparency, the president has instead presided over an unprecedented campaign to contain leaks and to control media coverage of government operations.
The fact that the CPJ issued the report at all underscores how hostile official policy has been to journalists. While the CPJ has reported on press freedoms in countries around the world since the early 1980s, this is its first investigation focused on the United States. Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, wrote the report, with input from several dozen Washington journalists, media advocates and former government officials.
Downie told The Nation he was most surprised by the unanimity of those reporters about the ways the administration has made their jobs more difficult. The level of specificity the many journalists were able to provide convinced him that the problems were pervasive, and exceptional. “The Obama administration’s aggressive war on leaks and its determined efforts to control information that the news media needs to hold the government accountable for its actions are without equal since the Nixon administration,” he said at a press conference this morning.
What sets the Obama administration apart from others, said Downie, is not its attempt to control the media narrative but rather its 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. “Most administrations aren’t very successful. This one has been very tightly disciplined.”
Among the most egregious actions cited in the report for having a chilling effect on the press are the prosecution of eight government employees or contractors under the 1917 Espionage Act, more than twice as many as all previous administrations combined; the restriction of normal reporter-source relationships by aggressively pursuing leaks, using secret subpoenas, and by implementing a program requiring federal employees to monitor one another for signs of unauthorized disclosures; hostility to press inquiries and reluctance to release information; and the use of the administration’s own internally created media to bypass the press.
The report does acknowledge several efforts to improve transparency. On his first day in office, Obama directed agencies to expedite Freedom of Information Act requests and to publish more information online, and in December 2009 he directed officials not to classify materials if they doubted that they should be secret. Obama signed the Whistle Blower Enhancement Protection Act last November, which was intended to protect federal employees from retaliation, including workers in the intelligence community. He has given far more interviews to news media than Clinton or Bush in their first term.