Open Or Closed
How Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama Became Media Control Freaks
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama trumpet their openness, but the media says they both do all they can to stop journalists from doing their jobs.
Embattled former secretary of state Hillary Clinton can console herself with the knowledge that she’s not alone.
The presumptive presidential candidate and email deleter—whose apparent reluctance to release public records and documents prompted the Associated Press to sue the State Department this week—is by no means unique in her wish to starve the insatiable media, or at least restrict ravenous reporters to a bland diet of happy news.
It has been the desire of politicians and government agencies through history to manipulate the Fourth Estate into publishing their press releases and ignoring their missteps and scandals. Technological advances, meanwhile, have cut both ways, allowing not only instantaneous public distribution of official government spin but also massive leaks of political and national security secrets, digitally downloaded from cyberspace.
“The basic narrative [of the latest Clinton controversy] is consistent with what we have seen from the Pentagon Papers through Watergate to the fundamental tension between the media and the political establishment,” said Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and former Washington bureau chief of CNN.
“It centers on secrecy and any suggestion of a cover-up. And what technology has changed is there is more demand for more information, more rapidly and more transparently shared. So that creates a collision course between the media and, in this case, Hillary Clinton.”
President Barack Obama’s minions, obsessed with preventing unauthorized disclosures, have turned this understandable impulse into an overpowering imperative, say journalism advocates who deal with them daily.
“These folks are control freaks,” said longtime media lawyer Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “To a certain degree, I can understand when it comes to sensitive information that can just be put on a thumb drive and flown to Russia. That’s scary, and they do need those controls. But that doesn’t mean you have to control all access.”
Dalglish was among the First Amendment advocates who attended a quarrelsome high-level meeting in November 2013 between President Obama’s communications staff, led by then-White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, and aggrieved and angry representatives of the White House press corps.
“The topic of that particular meeting at the White House was, ‘You’re not allowing independent photography; you only allow [Obama’s personal photographer] Pete Souza to take pictures. This is insane!’” Dalglish recalled.
“And they started going into their song and dance. ‘We’re the most transparent White House in history!’ ‘We post things on Facebook!’ ‘You don’t want us to have Facebook. You don’t want us to have Twitter and Instagram. Isn’t that hypocritical?’”
Dalglish continued: “Our response was ‘Hold it! Time out! You guys can blog. You guys can tweet. You guys can post photos. Good for you! Go do it. God bless. But it’s not the same thing as journalism. A series of photos you posted from Pete Souza are not the same as photos shot by independent professionals. And the fact that you don’t recognize that is troubling.’ Carney didn’t seem to understand.”
Amazed that Carney, a former Time magazine Washington bureau chief, would argue that White House-approved and edited photos were just as valid journalistically as those taken for independent news organizations—“Don’t get me started,” Dalglish said—she could barely believe her ears.
Carney remembers the encounter somewhat differently. “I’ve never said, and do not believe, that official photos are journalistically equivalent to photos take by independent photo journalists,” he emailed The Daily Beast. “What I did say, and believe, is that official photos have value, and that it’s a good thing to give the public access to them.”
The former White House press secretary acknowledged, however, that technology has inevitably placed the administration’s PR juggernaut in direct competition with news outlets.
“There were issues of access, which was something we could address and improve,” he emailed. “And there were issues of distribution, which were more difficult. Back in the 1980s, say, the official White House photographers took photos, decided which ones to distribute, developed them and then physically handed them out in the press room. The wires, the papers and the networks got to decide which, if any, the public would get to see.”
Carney continued: “The Internet has changed that. The early part of the process is the same now as it was then, but now the images are digitized and distribution is direct. The White House can simply post official photos online. More people get to see them, and see them sooner. I think that’s a good thing. But it doesn’t replace independent photography, and neither I nor anyone I worked with believed that it should or could.”
Photography aside, however, Dalglish listed a series of new limits demonstrating that the Obama administration’s relationship with the media is even more restrictive—arguably paranoid—than that of George W. Bush, hardly known as a press-friendly president.
“For instance, journalists can’t talk without pre-approval to any of the scientists at a scientific agency, whether it be NASA, the National Institutes of Health or the National Weather Service,” she said. “They’re cracking down on their experts, not allowing their actual scientists to speak to reporters. They make you go through ‘information specialists’ who translate the scientists for you. I’m sorry, but that’s insulting, unnecessary, and exhibits the mindset of a terrified control freak.”
In another instance, Dalglish said members of the intelligence community are required to file reports on even their most casual encounters with University of Maryland professor Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter who specializes in national security issues.
“Every time they see her they have to report it,” Dalglish said. “She was telling me that there was a meeting of the crew team of her daughter’s school, and there was a parent, the father of another kid, who works for one of the intelligence agencies. And he just came up to her and said, ‘Just so you know, every time I see you, I have to report that I saw you. I’m not trying to be rude, but they’re watching.’ ” Priest didn’t respond to email and voicemail messages from The Daily Beast.
Still, law professor Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago—who has studied the institutional tensions between the media and government secret-keepers—defended the intelligence community’s legitimate interests in holding the press at arm’s length.
Citing the massive and potentially harmful disclosures of classified material—by Chelsea Manning to Wikileaks and by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and other outlets—Stone said there’s little doubt that the resulting news stories damaged national security.
“The people in the intelligence community see the media as self-interested and superficial, reckless with information and a genuine danger to the nation, who do not understand what they’re doing, and, frankly, don’t care,” said Stone, who interviewed both spies and reporters as a member of the President’s Review Group on NSA Surveillance.
“The journalists tend to see the people in the intelligence community as being much more interested in protecting themselves from criticism than they are in allowing the public to be informed on matters on which the public should be informed. The truth is, they’re both right.”
The Associated Press’s lawsuit to obtain emails, calendars, phone logs and other material from Hillary Clinton’s four years at the State Department is the latest battleground of these opposing attitudes.
The central clearing house of U.S. diplomacy—which takes an average of 450 days to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request, according to a 2012 inspector general’s report—is by far the worst performer of any government agency. Even the CIA is seven times faster in responding, and the Treasury Department is even quicker—30 times faster than State.
AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser filed the current lawsuit on behalf of the non-profit wire service—which represents 1,700 member news outlets—after one of the AP’s Clinton-related FOIAs languished for five years at the State Department without a response.
She said it's possible that after negotiations with the Justice Department’s civil division there could be arguments before a federal judge, and some of the requested documents could be forthcoming within a few months.
At which point, Hillary Clinton—likely to be in smack-dab in the middle of her campaign for the Democratic nomination—will either be facing a pesky new scandal or a collective media yawn.