Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
After promising the most transparent government in history, President Obama sharply curtailed press access, aggressively prosecuted leaks, and spied on journalists.
I’m currently researching a story about climate change, scientific integrity, and the US government. To make sure I understand the larger context, I’ve had to do some parallel research about President Barack Obama and press freedom.
During these final days of the Obama administration, journalists are praising him to the heavens. Ode to Obama, by longtime New York Times columnist Charles Blow, positively gushes:The current top story on GQ magazine’s Facebook page was penned by its editor-in-chief, Jim Nelson. Published last year, it casts Obama as a new Abraham Lincoln and makes the extraordinary claim that he was a better president than Americans deserved. On the evening that he delivered his final speech, the New Yorker‘s Facebook page featured a reverential cover image that first appeared two weeks after Obama was elected President in 2008 – a historical moment in which millions of hearts were filled with hope and optimism. Journalist Jonathan Chait‘s new book goes on sale in a few days. Already a bestseller over at Amazon, we’re told it makes the “unassailable case that, in the eyes of history, Barack Obama will be viewed as one of America’s best and most accomplished presidents.” How strange this all is. Obama’s record on press freedom is atrocious. After promising the most transparent government in history, he went to extremes in the opposite direction.
Two weeks ago, New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen wrote about Obama’s “war on the press.” This “aggressive crackdown on journalists and whistle-blowers,” he said, is a critical part of the Obama legacy. In Risen’s words:
Over the past eight years, the administration has prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act…to go after government officials who talked to journalists.
Yep, you read that correctly. In all of US history only three people suspected of leaking sensitive information had been prosecuted under a 1917 law intended to punish spies. Since Obama took office, nine have.
Seizing years of e-mails and phone records, the US government subpoenaed Risen about a former CIA officer accused of being a media informant. Risen won in court, but the Obama administration appealed. He explains:
the administration tried to compel me to testify to reveal my confidential sources in a criminal leak investigation. The Justice Department finally relented — even though it had already won a seven-year court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court to force me to testify — most likely because they feared the negative publicity that would come from sending a New York Times reporter to jail.
Risen cites a “scathing 2013 report for the Committee to Protect Journalists” authored by Leonard Downie, a former editor at the Washington Post. In that report, Downie declares:
The [Obama] 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. [bold added]
Veteran journalists told Downie that, under Obama, government employees have become “scared to death” to talk to the media. One reporter say Obama is “the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered in terms of how he does his daily business.” Another calls his government “the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
Still other journalists report “across-the-board hostility to the media,” stymied Freedom of Information requests, White House officials who “feel entitled to and expect supportive media coverage,” and bullying telephone calls complaining about news stories.
In the words of one reporter, rather than answering routine questions, the “Obama people will spend an hour with you…arguing about the premise” of your news story and then refuse to even “give you the basic facts.” While the former George W. Bush government could be uncooperative, says another, the Obama administration has “taken it to a whole new level.”
The President who promised wide open government instead established a brand new entity called the Insider Threat Task Force. As the Committee to Protect Journalists report explains, in 2012
the White House issued a presidential memorandum instructing all federal government departments and agencies to set up Insider Threat Programs to monitor employees with access to classified information…each agency must, among other things, develop procedures “ensuring employee awareness of their responsibility to report…suspected insider threat activity.” [bold added]
If you’re a federal employee, your official duties now include snitching on colleagues who might be talking to reporters.
In its efforts to crack down on leaks, the Obama administration has also engaged in unprecedented surveillance of journalists. During the previous four decades, the US Justice Department had followed clear rules concerning subpoenas and news organizations. They were only used as a last resort, were drawn as narrowly as possible, and the news organizations involved were given notice beforehand so that negotiations with officials could be attempted and legal remedies could be pursued in court.
The Downie report says the Obama administration threw the rule book out the window. In May 2013, the Justice Department informed the Associated Press (AP) that it had “secretly subpoenaed and seized all records for 20 AP telephone lines and switchboards for April and May of 2012,” while investigating leaks connected to a story in which only six AP personnel were involved. The confidential activities of more than “100 AP journalists using newsroom, home, and mobile phones” were covertly examined by the US government. In the words of AP President Gary Pruitt, “the message being sent is: If you talk to the press, we’re going after you.”
Those concerned about Donald Trump’s attitudes toward press freedom, as well as his use of social media, are advised to read Downie’s report carefully. It discusses the Obama administration’s pioneering use of the Internet to distribute “large amounts of favorable information” directly to the public – information that wholly bypasses journalists, and whose primary purpose is to make the President look good.
In an article titled Obama, the puppet master, journalists Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen say America’s 44th president took “old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids.” Obama’s White House, they report, has been “obsessed with taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other social media forum, not just for campaigning, but governing.” (See for example, the White House Photo of the Day page, via which hundreds of flattering pictures of Obama and family are disseminated. Taken by White House photographers rather than independent photojournalists, these images are 100% PR.)
Here are some additional snippets from VandeHei and Allen’s 2013 article:
The president has not granted an interview to print reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, POLITICO and others in years. These are the reporters who are often most likely to ask tough, unpredictable questions.
…When Obama nominated Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, she gave one interview — to White House TV, produced by Obama aides.
…The super-safe, softball interview is an Obama specialty…Obama gives frequent interviews…but they are often with network anchors or local TV stations, and rarely with the reporters who cover the White House day to day.
…Obama held brief press availabilities after photos ops or announcements one-third as often as George W. Bush did in his first term — 107 to Bush’s 355.
In 2009, Barack Obama strolled into the Oval Office promising the most open and transparent administration ever. Over the next eight years, he habitually avoided substantive interviews with specialist reporters in favour of friendly, general interest chats in which he was treated like a celebrity.
On his watch, the US government routinely equated media leaks with espionage. Whistle blowers were pursued aggressively and dealt with harshly. On his watch, a culture of fear and paranoia was inculcated within the civil service. On his watch, the US government abandoned normal procedures in order to spy on journalists.
Obama delivered the exact opposite of what he’d promised – and what he publicly claims to believe in. The American Civil Liberties Association has protested. As has the Freedom of the Press Foundation. So why is Obama still a media darling?
Why aren’t words such as ‘ruthless,’ ‘vindictive,’ and ‘fascist’ used when people talk about him?