Public information officers at federal agencies have become gatekeepers and minders of federal employees, preventing journalists from doing their job and getting past a carefully controlled message from on high.
That’s one of the things that Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama’s press secretary, heard Dec. 15 at the White House.
I had the privilege of leading a group of six people in an hourlong meeting with Earnest and several of his deputies. Our contingent was past SPJ President David Cuillier; SPJ FOI Committee member Kathryn Foxhall; Tim Wheeler, a Baltimore journalist and chair of the FOI task force of the Society of Environmental Journalists; Kevin Goldberg, counsel for the American Society of News Editors; SPJ communications strategist Jennifer Royer; and me.
The meeting with Earnest was two years in the works. In 2014, SPJ spearheaded a letter to Obama, signed by 38 journalism and open government groups, objecting to PIO practices and seeking to hold him to his 2009 promise that his would be the most transparent administration in history.
In 2015, a second letter, signed this time by 53 groups, reiterated journalists’ concerns, again asking for relief. In the fall, Earnest’s office agreed to a meeting.
The meeting was on the record. In Washington, much business is done in corners and shadows. In the past, even meetings with journalists seeking to address journalists’ concerns were held off the record.
But I found the idea of holding an off-the-record meeting to discuss government management of information and secrecy with a highly placed administration official to be unacceptable.
Earnest shared his view of PIOs and the job they are supposed to do: They serve as a clearinghouse, he said. Their role is to help with the flow of information to a reporter, he said.
It is not the job of a government employee to answer the questions from a reporter, he said; that’s the PIO’s job.
There are many times that the story is different if the PIO is not in the room, Foxhall told Earnest. There may be an “official” story and something different.
With PIOs managing information and serving as a pinch-point, there may be stories beneficial to the government that aren’t getting told because of the current constraints. Many times, a reporter simply is seeking information to complete a story or to find facts to bolster an explanation, I said.
The SPJ-SEJ-ASNE contingent made a request of Earnest and the president, one we called “the big ask.”
Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister of Canada in the fall. In one of his first actions, with the sweep of a hand, he undid constraints on government scientists. Any scientist working for the Canadian government was free to talk to journalists without having to go through a PIO or other minder.
This refreshing approach would be in line with the president’s early call for transparency, I said. In fact, we recommended the anniversary of the president’s promise, Jan. 21, 2009, the day after he took office. That date would a grand opportunity for the administration in its last year to leave a legacy of actual transparency instead of a promise made and not kept, we said.
Cuillier noted that the president has done some positive things for government openness — making data available on the Web, for example. But he cautioned that the United States is slipping in the world rankings on press freedom. This country now is in the bottom half of the entire world. The president has the ability to reverse that trend, he said.
But Earnest said that any action by that date would be unlikely.
We raised a second issue: Too often, briefings in Washington are being held on a background basis only, with no information attributable to a spokesman. Journalists and consumers of news want names attached to information. The only way to determine the credibility of a statement is to know who said it, we argued. We asked for an end to background briefings.
Earnest noted that the percentage of background briefings at the White House has dramatically decreased. He agreed that people need to see names and attribution. There may be a chance to find common ground, he said.
Over the past several years, SPJ has conducted a number of studies and surveys to document the problems with PIOs. We left behind a thick notebook containing all those surveys, along with a lengthy list of examples to top-down information management in the government.
Will our visit prompt any change? We did get the meeting, and we were able to set down some markers. Earnest said he wanted to continue the conversation.
He promised a response after the president’s Jan. 12 State of the Union address. Here’s hoping that our visit was an actual discussion that begins work toward some solution instead of an exercise in which we are patted on the head and told, “Thank you so much for coming by.”