In July 2009, just months after President Obama took office promising to revolutionize government transparency, leaders of the Society of Environmental Journalists participated in an hour-long conference call with public-affairs staffers working for Lisa Jackson, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Jackson’s office wanted to hear what the reporters’ gripes were when it came to access, and Christy George, then the society’s president, and her colleagues obliged, outlining their most persistent problems: the requirement to seek permission for interviews with agency scientists and experts, and difficulty arranging those interviews; the requirement to have press officers, or “minders,” on the phone during interviews; and the glacial pace of processing Freedom of Information Act requests. Jackson’s assistants asked for the benefit of the doubt. “We’re not the Bush administration,” George recalled them saying. “Those days are left behind.”
For a while it seemed that might be true. The agency finally released a ruling, suppressed by the administration of George W. Bush, which states that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public welfare by contributing to climate change, and therefore can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. And it took smaller but appreciated measures, like opening more lines on press calls to accommodate reporters from smaller outlets and conducting those calls later in the day to accommodate reporters on the West Coast.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon was short-lived. One of the first signs of distress came during a January 2010 press call to discuss the EPA’s new budget. The agency surprised reporters by declaring that everyone on the line except Jackson was speaking on background. When members of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) later complained, two press officers conceded that the on-background rule was foolish, as George reported in an issue of group’s quarterly newsletter. Yet the agency pulled the same stunt three months later. Then things got even worse.
Responding to President Obama’s Open Government Directive, which ordered executive departments and agencies to “take specific actions to implement the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration,” the EPA launched two websites to solicit public comments about how to fulfill that obligation. In March 2010, SEJ weighed in with a list of nine recommendations. Days later, during the group’s next conference call with the agency, Adora Andy, the EPA press secretary at the time, “scolded us for daring to comment publicly on their transparency policies,” says Ken Ward Jr., chairman of the group’s Freedom of Information Task Force, who participated in the call. Moreover, Andy threatened to break off the discussions between the EPA and the society (she never did, and the talks are ongoing). “I was shocked,” says Ward, a reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. “Here we were talking about concerns that journalists have about the lack of transparency. Then we dutifully submit public comments about the way we thought they should interact with the press, and EPA hammers us for it. To me, it showed that EPA just doesn’t get transparency.”
Ward isn’t the only one feeling let down. After Obama issued a number of directives designed to improve general transparency and access on his first day in office, he homed in on science, the environment, and public health as areas needing particular improvement. The focus was a no-brainer. The Bush administration had earned a reputation for quashing the free flow of scientific information. In what became the most infamous example of its meddling, top NASA climate scientist James Hansen told The New York Times in 2006 that the administration had tried to stop him from speaking out about the threat of global warming by ordering the space agency’s public affairs staff to review his upcoming lectures, papers, and online postings. Today, a slew of reporters complain that such gag orders are still a problem and that transparency and access to information is often just as bad, if not worse in some cases, than it was under the Bush administration.
A survey of science, health, and environmental journalists, conducted by CJR and ProPublica, suggests that while his record so far is more mixed than the anecdotal evidence from journalists indicates, President Obama has clearly not lived up to his promise on transparency and access. As has been the case on many fronts with Obama, the expectations among journalists that things were going to improve were so high, a failure to live up those expectations was almost inevitable.