On January 21, 2009, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum committing his administration “to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government . . . to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.
Referencing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), he opined, “A democracy requires accountability and accountability requires transparency,” and FOIA represented “the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government.”
To underscore his sincerity, he invoked Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ oft-quoted maxim: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
Now eight years later, in the final overcast days of the Obama presidency, we are still waiting for his “new era of openness” to materialize.
So, too, is Reporters Without Borders (a.k.a. Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF), which currently ranks the United States 41st in its 2016 World Press Freedom Index — a compendium of 180 countries measured for their freedom of the press, the media, and information.
Evaluated by the criteria of pluralism, media independence, legislative framework, abuses, media environment and self-censorship, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information, America languishes below Tonga, Ghana, Latvia, Uruguay, Namibia, Slovakia, Costa Rica, and thirty-three other countries.
And since 2014, the U.S. has added the dubious distinction of joining Bahrain, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, et al. on RWB’s “Current Enemies of the Internet” list, whose members distinguish themselves by varying degrees of news and information censorship, as well as repression of Internet users.
The good news is the United States has improved its World Press Freedom Index by 8 points from its 2015 low-point mark of 49th. The bad news is America was ranked 20th when Obama took office.
According to the RWB, the 2016 ranking improvement is relative and hides broader negative trends. Most troubling is “the current administration’s obsessive control of information, which manifests itself through the war on whistleblowers and journalists’ sources, as well as the lack of government transparency.”
Who can forget New York Times reporter James Risen, who was subpoenaed twice in the 2010 indictment of Jeffrey Sterling under the Espionage Act of 1917. Refusing to reveal his sources, Risen was subjected to a seven-year nightmare of subpoenas, responses, appeals (one rejected by the Supreme Court), and threats of imprisonment—until it was decided he would not be forced to testify after all.
A judge in the case wrote, “The majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper was more emphatic: “The Obama administration has used the Espionage Act to go after whistleblowers who leaked to journalists . . . more than all previous administrations combined”—seven times.
No less chilling was the 2013 Associated Press announcement that over a two-month period the Justice Department had seized phone records, without notice, of 20 telephone lines to AP offices and journalists (including cell phones and home phones) affecting more than 100 reporters—a transgression AP president Gary Pruitt deemed “a massive and unprecedented intrusion” for which there was no justification.
Incredibly, a week following the AP probe, the DOJ ratcheted things up even further when it named Fox News journalist James Rosen a criminal co-conspirator in a leak case involving North Korea’s intention to conduct a nuclear test in response to impending U.N. sanctions. Federal investigators seized Rosen’s email logs, tracked his State Department visits and movements through his security badge, and even targeted the phone records of his parents on Staten Island.
The chorus was deafening:
Leonard Downie, a forty-year veteran at The Washington Post wrote, “The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”
In a report to President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTop nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report Prosecutors face legal challenges over obstruction charge in Capitol riot cases Biden makes early gains eroding Trump's environmental legacy MORE, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) voiced concerns that the administration’s “war on leaks . . . use of secret subpoenas” and “limitations on access to information” thwarted “a free and open discussion necessary to a democracy.”
To AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll, the CPJ report demonstrated the government’s ongoing threats to free and independent journalism in the United States, she urged “we must fight for those freedoms every day as the fog of secrecy descends on every level of government activity.”
Ann Compton, ABC News called Obama “the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered.”
Veteran Washington correspondent Josh Meyer agreed, “In the Obama administration, there is across-the-board hostility to the media.”
And David Sanger of The New York Times added bluntly, “This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
Through it all the Obama administration continues to set records. Earlier this year in an analysis of federal data, the AP reported that the government set a new milestone (again) for censoring or flat-out denying FOIA requests—in 596,095 cases, a staggering 77 percent, up 12 points from when Obama took office. There is still an active FOIA request dating back to September 1992. The documents have yet to be found.
All this from an administration touting itself as the most open and transparent administration in history.
In the end, Barack Obama’s relationship with the press and the media has always been a gambit of sorts—a calculated chess opening cloaked in high-flying, moral-sounding rhetoric that appears to start a meaningful dialogue or make a telling point, but in reality is just a game of promise and deceit.
With the Democratic defeat, Obama’s collectivist center is collapsing, and suddenly he no longer seems able to keep the media dazzled by all the balls he’s kept in the air so deceptively for eight years.
Now he waxes nostalgic and tells us and the world, “The majority of Americans think I’ve done a pretty good job.”
Overestimating his authenticity to the bitter end.
La Valle is a New York-based freelance writer who writes on U.S. politics.
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.