J-Groups Meet with WH Press Secretary, Seek More Openness

December 16, 2015

Representatives of a coalition of 53 journalism groups met December 15, 2015, with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. The groups have complained about agency press offices obstructing reporters' access to officials and information.

Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) President Paul Fletcher said the journalists "asked for a clear statement that government employees are free to speak without interference to members of the press and public." SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force Chairman Tim Wheeler attended.

The meeting came in advance of the seventh anniversary of President Obama's first-day-in-office pledge that his administration would be "the most open and transparent in history." Journalism groups have complained that this promise has yet to be fulfilled.

Instead of helping connect reporters to information and expedite interviews, reporters say many agencies simply block access. They require agency staff to get press office permission before talking to a journalist — and often require "minders" to sit in on interviews. They also demand restrictive "background" ground rules that prevent reporters from telling the public the names of officials making statements. Such restrictions, J-groups say, can prevent federal officials from being accountable for what they say.

This is not the first time J-groups have raised the issue. They sent an earlier letter on the subject to President Obama July 8, 2014. After they got no written response from the White House on that, they sent another letter August 8, 2014. What they finally got back they called a "non-response response" from Josh Earnest on August 11, 2014.

So far, no official response has come from the White House on the openness request lodged at the December 15, 2015, meeting.

"This Administration isn't just committed to the principle of transparency, we've committed to engaging advocates and journalists to discuss legitimate ideas that advance it. We look forward to continuing this conversation," Earnest said.

That stands in contrast to what the incoming Liberal government of Justin Trudeau in Canada did almost immediately as it took office. Trudeau lifted the long-time controls on press interviews with scientists and agency officials — and many immediately started giving unrestrained interviews.

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