Thursday, August 15, 2013

On Transparency and 'Phony Scandals'

"My [a]dministration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in [g]overnment. ... Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their [g]overnment is doing."

Barack Obama
White House memorandum

Mark this date in red — Aug. 9, 2013.

That was the day Barack Obama held his most recent press conference — and I'm talking about the kind of press conference where the president actually takes questions from the press instead of ducking in to pontificate about some topic that really is beneath the attention of the president and then ducking out before anyone in the press corps has time to ask a question.

When I was growing up, presidents used press conferences (and primetime speeches) to keep the American public informed — especially during national crises. Presidents didn't always hold them any more often than Obama does, but they dealt with substantive topics, and they didn't allow reporters who were perceived as friendly to the administration to ask all or most of the questions.

But Obama, who was pledging to have a "transparent" presidency before he took the oath of office the first time, doesn't have press conferences very often. Oh, sure, he appears in joint press conferences with foreign leaders and other dignitaries with whom he dined and/or conferred in private — in fact, so far, that accounts for more than half of the press conferences he has held since becoming president.

And he does appear to favor those who don't ask him the tough, watchdog–type of questions over those who do, granting access to the lapdogs.

According to the American Presidency Project, Obama averages fewer than two press conferences per month — a pace that certainly would be lower if his first year in office had been like the last four.

As it is, his average is far lower than any president in the last quarter century — and it is lower than any Democratic president (other than Jimmy Carter) since World War I.

Given the turmoil in the Middle East and the fact that the administration had closed more than 20 diplomatic outposts in the region, I would classify this as a crisis — although I'm inclined to think that most days under Obama's watch have been crises.

Consequently, it would have been a good time to explain to the American people what was going on.

It was ironic, too, that Obama should hold his press conference on that particular day — and in that particular location, the East Room of the White House. Thirty–nine years earlier — to the day and in the same room — President Richard Nixon made his farewell address to the White House staff, then departed shortly before Vice President Gerald Ford took the oath of office.

But it isn't so much the frequency (or lack thereof) of Obama's press conferences that concerns me as it is the content.

And that, I must conclude, is not so much the president's fault as it is the journalists'. I'm willing to concede the possibility that, in private, Obama encourages reporters to ask him tougher questions, but I do not get the sense that that is the case. Instead, I get the feeling that Obama rewards friendly journalists with access and denies access to the less–friendly ones.

(Reminiscent of Nixon's famed enemies list.)

In last week's press conference, somebody in the White House press corps should have asked Obama to identify which of the scandals that have plagued the White House in 2013 are "phony" and why he believes that is so? I think it is a legitimate question, given how often Obama has referred to "phony scandals" (and elicited wildly approving cheers from his supporters) in his never–ending campaign for Obamacare.

But no one asked the question.

Obama is entitled to believe that a topic being discussed in public is "phony" — but I do not believe that he or any other president should be allowed to make such an allegation without being held accountable for it.

That, unfortunately, is what is being allowed to happen. Everything that Obama says, no matter how outrageous it may be, goes unquestioned by the press, and, as a journalist, I am embarrassed by what I see.

Now, Obama isn't the first president to make outrageous statements — nor will he be the last — so I can't really fault him for that. And he isn't the first — nor will he be the last — to make outrageous statements that have gone unchallenged so I can't really fault him for that, either.

Nor can I fault him for not asking the press to throw him some fastballs when he was having so much success driving the softballs they kept lobbing to him out of the park.

But I can and do fault the press for utterly failing to do its job.

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