President Barack Obama might talk a good game when it comes to press freedom, but his actions don't follow, says the former executive editor of the Washington Post.
From his first presidental run, Obama promised a government that would be the most open and transparent in history, Leonard Downie Jr., writes in the Post.
But Downie calls the Obama administration’s steadily escalating war on leaks "the most militant I have seen since the Nixon administration. It has ignored the First Amendment and intimidated government sources of information into keeping their mouths shut, even though most of the information they might provide wouldn't be classified.
Without those confidential sources, Downie argues, it is impossible for journalists to hold leaders accountable.
In addition to intimidating sources, the White House routinely denies Freedom of Information Act requests on the grounds that they might endanger national security or compromise internal deliberations.
Every administration he has had contact with attempted to control its message via the media, Downie said, and as a senior editor for more than 25 years he often fielded complaints from both parties about what they considered unfavorable coverage. There were also threats, usually empty ones, to cut off access.
But journalists covering the Obama administration say they can't even get officials to talk them, he said. They often are referred to unhelpful or hostile press aides.
"The White House doesn’t want anyone leaking," a senior Washington correspondent told him. "There are few windows on decision-making and governing philosophy. There is a perception that Obama himself has little regard for the news media."
Obama bypasses the press by taking his message to social media, friendly bloggers, radio and video, Downie says. "It amounts to the White House reporting on itself, presenting an appearance of greater openness while avoiding penetrating questions from journalists who have the knowledge and experience to do meaningful accountability reporting," he said.
Even professional photojournalists are excluded from some White House events, with the only images seen by the public are those shot by an official White House photographer.
While most Americans don't care about the administration's openness to the press, its credibility will become increasingly important as Obama faces governing in a second term, national security threats and scandals.
"It is not too late for Obama’s actions to match his rhetoric," Downie says.
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