A Refreshing Start (With a Hiccup)

By guest blogger BARBARA COCHRAN, president, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Washington, D.C.

Supporters of open government could hardly have asked for a better beginning to the Obama administration, when, as one of his first acts, the new president declared “the beginning of a new era of openness in our country” and signed documents reversing the secrecy policies that had been a hallmark of the Bush administration.

“Transparency and the rule of law will be touchstones of this presidency,” President Obama said at a meeting with his senior staff on his first full day in the White House.

Unfortunately, that promising start was marred within hours when still and video photographers were left out of the news media pool that was hastily summoned to cover Obama’s second taking of the oath of office.  The repeat performance was necessitated after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts misspoke the words of the oath, which are prescribed in the Constitution, while administering the oath on Jan. 20.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association has joined with other media organizations and advocates of open government to seek more transparency from the new administration.  Obama signaled his intentions in his Inaugural Address when he called on those in government to “do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

In the Presidential Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government and the Presidential Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, the president ordered all government agencies to operate under principles of openness and to release information to citizens whenever possible.

This directly counters the policy initiated by Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft, who encouraged agencies to withhold information if there were any plausible reason and offered the full backing of the Justice Department to resist information requests.  After 9/11, the Bush administration created new categories of information that could be withheld and removed thousands of pages of government records from Internet access.

Obama also moved to free up information about his presidency or past presidencies by issuing the Executive Order on Presidential Records, which allows no one but the president to assert executive privilege to withhold documents.  He said he would consult legal counsel before any final decision to withhold information.

“Information will not be withheld just because I say so,” Obama said.  “It will be withheld because a separate authority believes it is well founded in the Constitution.”    

Nor has this been the only piece of encouraging news as the new administration takes shape.  In testimony during his confirmation hearing, Attorney General-designate Eric Holder breathed new life into hopes for a federal reporters’ shield law to protect journalists from being forced to disclose their confidential sources.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Holder about his position on the shield bill, which was opposed by the Bush Justice Department.  Holder said he favors “the concept of a shield law” and would support “a carefully crafted law” that gives the Justice Department “the capacity to protect national security and to prosecute any leaks in intelligence that may occur.”

Holder’s comments were not a full-throated endorsement, but at least he left the door open to working on new legislation.  The last efforts failed when the bill never came to the Senate floor in the 2007-2008 session of Congress.

The previous bill included protections for national security concerns.  Now media groups, including RTNDA, want a law that will cover unpublished information, such as video outtakes, and protect bloggers who regularly gather news and report to the public. 

High-profile subpoenas in the Valerie Plame, Wen Ho Lee, and Stephen Hatfill cases have highlighted how often reporters are being threatened with fines or jail sentences in federal cases if they refuse to disclose their sources.  No one knows for sure how many subpoenas have been issued, but the Justice Department informed the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that the attorney general had approved 65 subpoenas between 2001 and 2006.

The Obama administration is in its infancy and much remains to be fleshed out about its policies in a host of areas that affect media interests.  The incident with the media pool and the oath is troubling but may just be a hiccup as the new White House Press Office learns the ropes.  But, so far, it’s refreshing to see an administration that wants to let the sunshine into government activities and that understands the importance of protecting journalists’ ability to report on critical issues that depend on information from confidential sources.