Several key journalists' groups have written a letter to President Barack Obama to complain about the White House's lack of transparency and its "politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies."
signed by more than a dozen groups, including the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Collegiate Press, the Center for Media and Democracy, and the Poynter Institute, asks Obama to create an ombudsman who would monitor and enforce his goal to restore transparency to the government.
The groups also request that Obama "issue a clear directive telling federal employees they're not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so. We believe that is one of the most important things you can do for the nation now, before the policies become even more entrenched."
In their letter, the groups say it has become harder for members of the press to speak directly to people at federal agencies, where "contact is often blocked completely." In addition, they complain, there is an "absurd" level of anonymity that comes when setting terms to speak with anyone in the government for a story.
Such control of media access limits the public's trust in the government, they said.
"Some argue that controlling media access is needed to ensure information going out is correct. But when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. This is not a 'press vs. government' issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions."
The groups list several examples in which media outlets such as The New York Times and Reuters were ignored when seeking comments from federal agencies for their articles.
"In many cases, this is clearly being done to control what information journalists – and the audience they serve – have access to," their letter says. "A survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote."
They emphasized that Washington has not always been so secretive.
"In prior years, reporters walked the halls of agencies and called staff people at will," they said.
"Only in the past two administrations have media access controls been tightened at most agencies. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists without surveillance.
"Meanwhile, agency personnel are free speak to others — lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money — without these controls and without public oversight."
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