Social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn make reaching sources a breeze for journalists. Navigating handlers to secure an on-the-record interview with a source, however, isn’t always so easy.
While reporting a story for Great Lakes Echo about illicit marijuana production on public lands, I ran into a federal roadblock that stymied my work as a journalist and as a government watchdog.
It’s a barrier that shows President Barack Obama has a lot of work to do to square his campaign promise of transparency with his administration’s actions.
As the old adage says, the proof’s in the puddin’.
Mixed report card
Taking over the reins from one of the most secretive administrations in recent memory, Obama has made some significant progress to increase oversight and transparency on a number of issues, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, which graded Obama’s marks at transparency after one year in office.
CJR credited him for overturning Bush-era policies to delay and withhold information when responding to the Freedom of Information Act requests, and for releasing monthly White House visitor logs – the Bush administration refused to release visitor data, useful to determine who has the administration’s ear, and how often.
But CJR gave Obama a “D” for holding the Bush line on using the state secrets privilege to exclude evidence from litigation, ostensibly to protect national security. He received an “F” for continuing the use of off-the-record briefings to describe the administration’s positions on often-contentious issues.
These aren’t grades that Obama is likely to hang from the White House refrigerator.
The President is drawing fire from conservatives for allowing congressional Democrats to negotiate a final health care bill behind closed doors, despite a campaign pledge to broadcast all such negotiations on C-SPAN. And progressives groups are angry that he reneged on his promise to release detainee torture photos.
Some of Obama’s not-so-transparent policies are also making jobs difficult for journalists.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released a press release on Jan. 28 exposing a gag order placed on U.S. Forest Service staff.
In a January 26, 2010 e-mail to employees, Kate Goodrich-Arling, the Public and Legislative Affairs Officer for the Monongahela National Forest, states:
“Partly due to the increased scrutiny surrounding ARRA [the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] work and partly due to a relatively new administration, we remain under strict instructions for talking with the media.
So, a reminder:
If you receive media calls that fall under the following categories you cannot talk to the reporter, but should instead get their contact info and get in touch with me: 1. contacts by a member of the national media on ANY subject 2. contacts by a local or regional reporter seeking information about a national issue including policy and budget issues.”
PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch asked “How can a government be transparent when public servants are forbidden from disclosing facts? This the same type of gag order that we saw a lot during the Bush years.”
Forest Service requests questions, sources and reporting plans
I understand Ruch’s frustration. When I reached my U.S. Forestry Department source over the phone, he surprised me by saying he had to “clear” the interview before talking with me. I then received an e-mail request from a public affairs officer from a regional national forest that requested some of what I considered reasonable, relevant information: length of the interview, the reporter’s name, deadline, etc.
But other questions seemed intrusive, even downright weird:
– Names and titles of other individuals the reporter will contact for the story.
– Description of any information you/your reporter already has on the subject (including any information from Forest Service website).
– Interview format.
Eager to quickly secure the interview, I did my best to answer the questions as fully as possible, noting that the interview format will be question-and-answer, and in English. Still, the process seemed aimed to make my job more difficult. For instance, I had a set of questions that I was prepared to ask. But interviews rarely go as planned. A response from a source can send an interview on an entirely different direction.
I called the public affairs officer, who advised me to “really think through the questions you want to ask, and imagine what he might say. What you might ask him if he says this, or …”
Apparently, mine was the first request this particular public affairs officer had dealt with that applied to a “topic of national scope.” And she wasn’t sure what the process included.
“My understanding … is that you will submit answers to the questions, then the source will fill out a response form as well,” she said. “I have to send them to our regional office. From there they go to the Washington office, and potentially, to the department office and then they’ll come back down. So, time-wise, it behooves you to plan in advance.”
Even then, she couldn’t promise that I’d be able to speak to my source directly.
While I was a bit honored that higher-ups in Washington and elsewhere would take the time to consider my request, I sympathized with both the public affairs officer and my source. It’s clear that they would rather not have to work through this contrived filter.
More importantly, I wondered if this interview would ever happen.
I submitted my request on Jan. 20. And as of Feb. 1, the public affairs officer couldn’t tell me much.
“Upon receiving your email this morning, I checked in with our regional office,” she wrote in an e-mail.
“Like me, they have not heard back on your request, but reiterate that it has long been standard procedure to coordinate all law enforcement interview requests through the national headquarter. For unknown reasons, this particular request remains under consideration. I trust that you’ll be patient as long as you can …”
I’m still waiting. And my patience, like that of my editor and other reporters who cover the forest service beat regularly, is wearing thin.