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Journalists to Obama: Let Us Do Our Jobs

For a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, outgoing White House press secretary Jay Carney sat for the magazine’s weekly interview feature. Since the American mainstream press can never stop talking about itself, the tough line of questioning of the interview concerned the Obama administration’s infamous war on leakers and shameless spying not only on journalists but on their parents. Carney had a revealing response.

Here’s the exchange:

One serious accusation that has come up throughout your tenure is that this is an Orwellian administration, the most secretive ever. I know — because I covered them — that this was said of Clinton and Bush, and it will probably be said of the next White House. I think a little perspective is useful. What I really reject — and would have rejected as a reporter covering this place — is this notion that whether a reporter is successfully doing his job depends on information he is being handed through the front door from the White House.

But won’t all these leak investigations produce a chilling effect? Len Downie [the former Washington Post editor] sat in this office as he was preparing a report about how we were producing a chilling effect, and I was able to take a copy of The Post and drop it on the table and point to yet another unbelievable national security leak. Reporters are still able to get stories and information that the administration clearly does not want them to have.

Carney has a point that such accusations are leveled at each administration. But notice his answer to the second question there. His rebuttal to the press taking offense at his boss’s attempts to prevent them from accessing information is that, hey, some stories are still getting through. In other words, the Obama administration’s information suppression isn’t perfect, and therefore isn’t objectionable. Come back to him when he’s put you completely out of business, and maybe you’ll have a point.

It’s kind of an amazing answer when you think about it. But it’s also completely characteristic of this administration. Carney was a journalist. And like most journalists, he went to work for President Obama. (That’s an exaggeration: most journalists may have wanted a job doing officially what they were doing unofficially–spinning shamelessly for Obama–but only a select couple dozen got the opportunity to fulfill their dream of silencing a free press and spouting robotic talking points.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carney’s response–that sometimes news is occasionally produced despite Obama’s best efforts–has not convinced journalism groups. Via George Washington Professor Jonathan Turley, 38 such groups have sent Obama a joint letter of protest. They write:

You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.

Turley comments:

Once again, the White House has a virtually army of commenters and blog surfers who continually deflect such criticism by referring to how much worse the Republicans are or simply changing the subject. However, the mounting attacks on civil liberties by this Administration has gutted the foundational principles of the Democratic party and virtually destroyed the American civil liberties movement. What is left the power of personality over principle. However, this will not our last president. When he leaves, he will leave little in his wake beyond hypocrisy for those who have remained silent in the face of the abuses. It is the victory of the “blue state/red state” construct that maintain the duopoly of the two parties. Each party excuses its failures by referring to the other as the worst of two evils. For years, Democrats and liberals have supported Obama as he has attacked the defining values that were once the Democratic party. The fact that this letter is even necessary is a shocking statement on the state of American press freedom.

Turley makes an important point, not only about press freedom itself but by the partisan nature of excuse-making. We often play the game of “what if a Republican did this?” Well, barring an American metamorphosis into a one-party state, a Republican will at some point be in that position. Obama will have set a precedent in his at times ridiculously obsessive control of the news, and the Democrats will have not only enabled or defended it, but the left-leaning journalists among them will have been lining up for jobs to help them do so.

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