NEW YORK — Leonard Downie spent more than four decades at The Washington Post, including 17 years as the paper’s top editor, and has heard plenty of grumbling from reporters blocked from access to government information. “I’m used to journalists complaining,” he told HuffPost in an interview.
But after speaking to 30 veteran Washington journalists to prepare a Committee to Protect Journalists report, Downie said he was persuaded that concerns about lack of government transparency are legitimate. Those interviewed, he wrote, “could not remember any precedent” to the Obama administration’s aggressive crackdown on leaks and efforts to control information.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based journalist advocacy organization, released Downie’s findings Thursday in its first comprehensive look at press freedom in the United States: “The Obama Administration and the Press: Leak investigations and surveillance in post-9/11 America.”
For 32 years, the Committee to Protect Journalists has been better known for investigating press freedom under authoritarian governments, or where journalists are killed with impunity or in war zones. But this spring’s revelations about the Justice Department secretly seizing phone records at The Associated Press and obtaining a Fox News reporter’s email account have increased concerns closer to home.
Downie, a journalism professor at Arizona State University, expressed concerns in late May about the future of investigative reporting in light of the AP and Fox News revelations. Shortly after that, the Committee to Protect Journalists asked Downie to investigate. Downie in recent months spoke with journalists, government transparency advocates and current and former government officials.
In the report, Downie examined a range of Obama administration tactics that hinder government transparency. These include unprecedented use of the Espionage Act in prosecuting media leaks, classifying government documents as secret when no harm could come from their release, increased government surveillance that jeopardizes the safety of news sources, Freedom of Information Act violations, and White House-produced content that can’t substitute for independent, accountability journalism.
Committee to Protect Journalists chairman Sandra Mims Rowe and executive director Joel Simon sent the report to Obama, along with a letter expressing concerns over a pattern of administration actions “that impedes the flow of information on issues of great public interest and thwarts the free and open discussion necessary to a democracy.” (The letter, published below, made six recommendations.)
AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll said in a statement that the the Committee to Protect Journalists report “highlights the growing threats to independent journalism in the United States, a country that has for two centuries upheld press freedom as a measure of a democratic society.
“We find we must fight for those freedoms every day as the fog of secrecy descends on every level of government activity,” Carroll continued. “That fight is worthwhile, as we learned when the outcry over the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records led to proposed revisions intended to protect journalists from overly broad investigative techniques. Implementation of those revisions is an important next step.”
WORSE THAN BUSH
In the report, a who’s who of Washington journalists are quoted complaining that the Obama administration has been unresponsive to media requests, has been overly sensitive to critical coverage and has fostered a climate in the capital that makes potential news sources reluctant to speak.
David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, said “this is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
Times national security reporter Scott Shane said people in government are “scared to death” because of leak investigations. “It’s having a deterrent effect,” he added. “If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.”
Michael Oreskes, a senior managing editor at the AP, said, “the Obama administration has been extremely controlling and extremely resistant to journalistic intervention.” Josh Meyer, a veteran Washington correspondent, said White House staffers “don’t return repeated phone calls and emails” and “feel entitled to and expect supportive media coverage.”
Downie, who remains an unpaid editor-at-large for The Washington Post, spoke with several colleagues there researching the report.
Managing editor Kevin Merida said the Obama White House’s “levels of sensitivity amaze me — about something on Twitter or a headline on our website.” Marcus Brauchli, the former Washington Post executive editor who succeeded Downie, said the Bush administration had a worse reputation” for transparency, but “in practice, it was much more accepting of the role of journalism in national security.”
Post national security reporter Dana Priest spoke of putting less correspondence with sources in writing, given surveillance concerns. Cameron Barr, the paper’s national editor, said “reporters are interviewing sources through intermediaries now, so the sources can truthfully answer on polygraphs that they didn’t talk to reporters.”
ABC News correspondent Ann Compton described Obama as the “least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered in terms of how he does his daily business.”
CAMPAIGN PROMISE UNFULFILLED
White House officials pushed back against such negative assessments and pointed out that Obama has given “more interviews to news, entertainment, and digital media in his first four-plus years in office than Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did in their respective first terms, combined.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told Downie that news sources aren’t going silent, pointing reports about Syria on the day of the interview that citied unnamed officials. “The idea that people are shutting up and not leaking to reporters is belied by the facts,” Carney said.
Following the outcry over its surveillance of the AP and Fox, the Justice Department revised its guidelines in July. Obama has urged Congress to pass a federal shield law protecting journalists from being compelled to reveal sources.
Still,Downie told HuffPost that the Obama administration has a way to go in fulfilling a campaign promise to bring more transparency to government.
“What I see here is that Obama campaigned against excessive secrecy, promised to have the most transparent government in American history, signed presidential directives in his first day of office with a lot of fanfare, continues to say in speeches and interviews and press conferences that transparency is a high priority for him, and it hasn’t happened,” Downie said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s a Republican or Democrat. It matters what he has promised and has not delivered.”