Analysis: Whither Transparency Under Trump?

November 22, 2016

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Analysis: Whither Transparency Under Trump?

By Joe Davis, WatchDog TipSheet Editor

Journalists still unhappy about lack of access to information under President Barack Obama are starting to get concerned about how they can do their jobs under President-elect Donald Trump. So far, it’s not looking good.
It’s still early. But the Trump performance during the campaign and transition suggest a predisposition not only to block the news media from getting information the public needs, but actually to attack and manipulate the press.
Media organizations, whose grumbling had grown quieter during the Obama administration, are already signing joint letters of complaint.
Case in point: the White House press pool. Twice already during the transition, Trump has simply ditched them. The press pool is a protective tradition — understood and appreciated largely by the White House press corps (and watchers of the TV show “West Wing”). The idea is that if the president chokes on his steak or somebody blows up the Twin Towers while he is visiting a school, the American public will know about it.
Trump’s refusal to allow a press pool during his first White House visit on Nov. 10 drew a written complaint from the White House Correspondents Association. Then, after spokesperson Hope Hicks announced a “lid” for the day on Nov. 15, Trump snuck out to Club 21 for a family dinner.  This quickly drew a second objection from the WHCA, followed by a written objection from a hastily assembled coalition of 18 journalism groups.
“We respectfully ask you to instill a spirit of openness and transparency in your administration in many ways but first and foremost via the press pool,” they said in a Nov. 16 letter.
A president ‘hostile to journalists’
The flap over the pool may prove just an emblem and a prologue. It’s important, but the many other ways an administration gives information to the American public also matter. Will Trump give frequent press conferences? Will he subvert the presumption of openness under the Freedom of Information Act? Will he encourage executive agencies to let their staff do media interviews?
The Society of Environmental Journalists has fought for years under both parties to pry environmental information loose from secretive administrations. Now, SEJ President Bobby Magill says, “At the same time as Trump blacklisted reporters who offended him, journalists were routinely jeered and heckled at his campaign rallies, where he called journalists dishonest and sleazy.
“At few points in history has journalism — especially environmental journalism — been more necessary and critical to our future,” Magill wrote in the Nov. 15 issue of SEJournal Online. “And at few points in history has the government — particularly an incoming president — been so hostile to journalists, transparency, the freedom of the press and facts in general.”
Covering the environment is more critical than ever following Trump’s promises to tear up the Clean Power Plan, “cancel” the Paris Agreement on climate, and dismantle what he refers to as the “Department of Environment Protection.”
Information is in many ways a key battleground in the policy wars that help or harm people’s environmental health. The lead pollution in Flint’s drinking water was not just a regulatory failure — it involved a cover-up. Scientists for environmental groups and scientists for chemical companies struggle every week over studies on whether a pesticide causes cancer.
Journalists need the freest possible access to scientific, regulatory, and other government information if they are to inform the public of potential harms and solutions. Trump’s advent heightens freedom-of-information concerns.
Reading the signals on press relations
Access to the White House, while key, is not a primary concern for most environmental journalists. But Trump is signalling in these early days how open and media-friendly his eventual administration will be.
For example, Trump’s last press conference was held on July 27. Trump had spent time before that criticizing his Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton for not holding press conferences — and the media had long faulted Obama for the rarity of his. Of course there is a lot more to media access than these rituals, but they are an indicator of an administration’s openness.
Journalists were reminded during the Obama administration that the stances and policies set by press-office leaders at the White House trickle down to the executive agencies. When SEJ and other journalism groups complained to the White House about being stiff-armed by press officers at the U.S. EPA and other agencies, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in essence, just shrugged.
The example set by Trump during the campaign was not a good one. At rallies, media were assaulted, choked, confined to a press “pen” and threatened with loss of credentials if they left it. Media outlets were blacklisted (by having their campaign credentials withdrawn) when they did stories unfavorable to Trump. Technically, the blacklist ended in September, but by then Trump had retreated to friendly venues like Fox News.
Threats and revenge, in fact, seem to be foundation stones of Trump’s press policy. As he put it during his post-election “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl: “When you give me a bad story ... I have a method of fighting back.”
For instance, with the media properly “penned” at rallies, Trump routinely held them up for insults and encouraged his audiences to express hostility. Here’s one verbatim quote from a rally: “The mainstream media, these people back here, they're the worst. They are so dishonest (audience jeers) no, no, they're so dishonest — and by the way some of the media is terrific — but most of it, 70 percent ... 75 percent is absolute dishonest, absolute scum. Remember that. Scum. Scum.”
Tough reporters like Katie Tur and Megyn Kelly endured such abuse and still did their jobs. But for many reporters, the prospect is daunting. If you doubt this, look at a video montage taken from Trump’s press pen by the New York Times. Some call it an attack on press freedom. But observers like Media Matters expressed disappointment that many in the media merely took their lumps and normalized such mistreatment.
Strengthening accountability
The groups and journalists whose job it is to defend press freedom may not be entirely ready. To help, one open-government coalition, led by a group known as, published a thoughtful set of recommendations to the next administration (before the actual election) on how it could strengthen public records accountability. But the recommendations, which deal in training and reports, may not be adequate to address a possible coming sea change in federal culture.
For 50 years, the Freedom of Information Act has been a key tool of accountability journalism in the face of governments hoping not to be accountable. Last summer, Congress enacted amendments that strengthened FOIA by (among other things) codifying the “presumption of openness” that had varied from administration to administration.
During the Bush administration, an attorney general issued the so-called “Ashcroft Memo” undermining FOIA with a presumption of secrecy. Technically, it’s a good thing for open government that this may no longer be legally possible. But long-time FOIA requesters know that the government has many ways of withholding documents. FOI journalists will be watching the new Trump administration closely to see how this plays out.
Are the media-relations rules for a transition different than those for the administration of a president who has been inaugurated? In many ways, they are. But the principle that openness fosters public trust still applies. One open-government group, the Sunlight Foundation, has gone so far as to publish proposed principles for transitions — with transparency and communication at the core. Journalists trying to cover the transition, however, say transparency isn’t good.
Another open-gov watchdog, Michael Morisy at MuckRock, makes the point, in an open-records guide to the transition, that as a president-elect nears the White House, he/she becomes increasingly subject to FOIA. The bad news: We still can’t get Donald Trump’s tax returns.
Under a law passed this year, there actually is a formal government apparatus for handling transitions. But since Trump has so far bypassed or barely engaged this apparatus, his transition remains an undocumented rumor mill.
Back in February, after various news stories examined him critically, Trump threatened to “open up the libel laws” in a way that would weaken free press protections. His problem is that even with a willing Congress, it would be constitutionally impossible for him to do it. Trump this year threatened to sue both the Washington Post and the New York Times for stories he did not like. But he never did.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan (formerly public editor at the New York Times) summed up the situation in a Nov. 13 column. The First Amendment guaranteeing free speech and free press, she said, is the cornerstone of our democracy. “Trump has made it clear,” Sullivan wrote, “that he has no intention of protecting or defending those rights. He has said repeatedly that he wants to change the laws that allow the press to publish news — however imperfectly — without fear of punishment.”
Most telling was Sullivan’s headline: “Our First Amendment test is here. We can’t afford to flunk it.”

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 1, No. 4. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.


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