The Rose Garden: White House Transparency Off to a Cloudy Start

Posted January 30, 2009 at 6:34pm

Transparency is a watchword of President Barack Obama’s administration, as it was of his campaign, and the White House has taken some steps to increase the promised level of openness in government.

[IMGCAP(1)]But there are growing questions about the extent of access that will be provided to the press and whether transparency means true openness or a strategy of broadcasting a message over the heads of those whose job is skepticism and accountability.

Some of the signs of limits to access are significant, and others are not. But for an administration that has staked its reputation on transparency, all deserve a heightened level of scrutiny. The scrutiny starts with the president himself.

Obama seemed to perform mini press conferences just about every day of the transition that he was not in Hawaii. The contrast since he became president is startling. He has only been in office for a short time. But it is striking that Obama has taken almost no serious

questions from U.S. journalists since becoming president during a time of grave peril and challenge for the country with respect to the economy and international affairs.

Obama sat for a substantive interview with Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television, focusing on U.S. relations with the Middle East and the Muslim world. But until Sunday’s Super Bowl day interview with Matt Lauer of NBC’s “Today Show,” the only face time Obama had given a U.S. reporter was on the night of his inauguration, when ABC’s Robin Roberts caught up with him at one of the balls. The Lauer session was to be done after press time.

Roberts’ grilling started off inauspiciously: “‘Mr. President.’ Sounds good, doesn’t it?” She began her second question with, “It was beautiful, watching you dance with your wife,” making it clear Obama aides had arranged a softballs-only affair for the new president.

Worse, the interview was granted at a ball that ABC reportedly paid $2 million to broadcast, prompting questions in the White House briefing room about whether the administration was engaged in pay-to-play access for journalists.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said ABC’s payment to the inaugural committee was not related to the decision to grant the interview.

An Obama aide angrily contradicted points made in this piece. “We have taken steps to increase transparency,” spokesman Tommy Vietor said. He noted that the White House had worked to make “decision makers” available to reporters for interviews. “And despite this column’s claims to the contrary, the president has been doing interviews,” he said, pointing to the Al-Arabiya session.

Indeed, the administration has taken some steps to increase transparency. Obama’s daily schedule is far more detailed than that of his two immediate predecessors, listing for the first time many of his private meetings — even if detailed descriptions of those meetings’ agendas are not provided.

There are written readouts of Obama’s calls to foreign leaders — though these were provided orally before — and a detailed schedule for Vice President Joseph Biden, a marked contrast to the secrecy surrounding former Vice President Dick Cheney.

And Congressional officials hope to have far greater access than they did under Bush. Many top White House legislative aides come from among their ranks. Hill veterans occupy the highest levels of power including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former Illinois Representative, and senior adviser Pete Rouse — who was chief of staff to Obama in the Senate and to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

But White House reporters interviewed for this story, none of whom wanted to be named for fear of angering the Obama aides they depend on for information, questioned whether some of the initiatives to provide more information mattered much.

One reporter, a veteran on the beat, was sharply critical of a decision to hold the very first White House briefing on background. The briefing room session was a discussion of some of Obama’s executive orders concerning the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror.

“It’s a pretty bad start to the new transparency — not going on the record on a major change in U.S. policy does not meet the test for transparency,” this reporter said. “All the databases and Web sites don’t make up for it if they’re not going to be transparent on the stuff that really matters.”

Articles are proliferating about how the Obama team intends to use YouTube and other aspects of the Web to circumvent reporters. Many of the efforts to get information out to the public serve Obama’s message well. Obama himself has changed the weekly radio address to a video performance. And he has revamped a mass grass-roots campaign organization, Obama for America, into Organizing for America, which appears designed to move the president’s message directly to voters using Obama activists.

These and other signs point to the possibility that the new transparency can be used as a political tool to broadcast Obama’s views.

Other events have caused consternation openly expressed in the White House briefing room.

Veteran CBS reporter Bill Plante heatedly demanded to know why the “second swearing-in” of Obama was covered by a print pool but not a non-White House photographer or a video cameraman.

“We think it was done in a way that was upfront and transparent,” Gibbs said during the briefing, pointing to the presence of the print pool and an audio recording of the moment.

When, in a separate incident, the press was not brought in to photograph Obama on his first day in the Oval Office, news organizations refused to move White House-approved images.

In one report, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics complained that disclosure reports filed by Cabinet members and top Obama aides are filed and released under an anachronistic procedure that makes the information difficult to get. The procedures are a legacy of the Bush administration, though Obama has not acted to change them.

At the very moment of the administration’s inception, on the steps of the Capitol, a quartet appeared to be playing a beautiful melody. Nobody was told that the pleasant sounds they were hearing were prerecorded.

Did the event set the “tone” for the Obama regime? We shall see.