March 29, 2016

President Obama touched all the right bases for his mostly media audience Monday night and still came up short in making the case for a strong, independent and serious-minded press.

Headlining the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting, he spoke of the importance of an independent, meticulous, tough and, yes, respectful press (he is, after all, a pretty decorous guy). He invoked the late New York Times reporter Robin Toner as embodying those values, including in her coverage of his first presidential campaign.

He spoke, too, of our critical role in “exposing the horrors of lynching,” breaking up the monopolistic trusts of old and uncovering scandals like Watergate. He conceded the pressures of changing business models and the coming of the Internet, in some cases forcing the closing of newsrooms as both the bottom line and news cycle shrink. Heads surely nodded, especially among an older guard, as he evinced sympathy for the often unavoidable tendency to “feed the beast with instant commentary and Twitter rumors, and celebrity gossip, and softer stories.” Civility and clickbait, after all, aren’t a coosome twosome.

But you can still conclude that his track record on press matters and vision of the media future is either ambiguous or flatly errant — even if you’d argue (as I would) that he’s been unfairly diminished by an unrelenting media and political assault over seven years and that history will treat him far better than his current public approval ratings suggest.

He’s especially uneven on the release of government records, even after promising the most open administration ever. It’s not a new conclusion but one worth repeating.

Despite some clear advances, including improvements to the Presidential Records Act, he’s exhibited the tendency of successive administrations, regardless of political party, to inhibit media access. Whether it was use of the Freedom of Information Act, handling of the so called “open meetings law, reliance on so-called “secret law” memos or going after media for alleged leaks, he’s not been anywhere near as sensitive to press desires as he suggests.

Indeed, an Associated Press analysis recently concluded that the administration has stopped previous records in not fulfilling FOIA requests.

To that extent, I read his remarks Monday and underwent a “Back to the Future” experience as I thought back to attending a 1996 American Society of Newspaper Editors annual meeting in Washington. There, then-Attorney General Janet Reno spoke about the Clinton administrations new allegiance to the FOIA. Many editors lapped it up, only to find future performance falling way short.

“We are now making FOIA performance part of the job description of every relevant Department of Justice employees and rating them on how well they do,” Reno told us that day.

Trying to recall the Clinton-era track record, I emailed Latvia on Tuesday to track down Jane Kirtley, a free press specialist at the University of Minnesota Law School who’s teaching there this semester.

“It’s true that Clinton’s administration didn’t do all it promised for openness in government (see, e.g., the Health Care Task Force),” she wrote. “But I think Janet Reno genuinely was committed to openness in principle from her Florida days, and during her watch, the [administration] did have many training sessions for federal records custodians to get them to comply with the FOIA (which is where the rubber meets the road).”

“Remember her position that DOJ wouldn’t defend them if they withheld documents for no good reason, even if they technically could do so under an exemption? I don’t know any administration before or since that had a policy like that. And remember, too, that Clinton vetoed an Official Secrets Act.”

“I’m all for criticizing the Clinton administration,” Kirtly wrote from Riga, taking a more sympathetic position toward the Clinton legacy than some others I know, “and no administration has entirely lived up to the promises they make. But given what’s come after, I think, on the whole, it wasn’t a bad record.”

As for Obama, “Words fail me. I’ve seldom been so disillusioned. Big, big promises and very little delivery. All those leak investigations and prosecutions. And then he blames the media for Trump.”

“President Obama promised an unprecedented level of transparency when his administration came into office, but those promises have not translated into results for the public and the press who rely on the Freedom of Information Act to understand what their government is doing,” said Adam Marshall, the Jack Nelson-Dow Jones Foundation Legal Fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“The backlog of requests and the accompanying delay has massively increased in recent years, despite only marginal increases in the number of FOIA requests being made,” Marshall said. “This delay unacceptably hampers the flow of crucial information to the public and inhibits robust democratic debate across our nation.”

The amount of exemptions being claimed by the administration, he argues, suggests how various agencies have simply not meaningfully implemented the President’s or the Attorney General’s guidance on the presumption of openness. “Such failure affirms that real legislative reform is necessary to fix FOIA,” says Marshall. It’s not a matter Obama seems inclined to spend much political capital on during his final year.

Behind the scenes at the White House, one tends to find a predictable monotony. I know aides who grouse about unfair press treatment and how the media just doesn’t fairly relay the administration’s achievements in various spheres. They thus fall back often on the notion that communications, not their actual messages or policies, are errant, also evidencing the self-righteous air that can consume West Wingers.

There is, too, the predictable rising tension between the White House and the press who cover it, especially mainstream stalwarts who feel the Obama administration is too slick by half in playing to media newcomers. For the White House, why waste time allowing perhaps more rigorous interviews from newspapers when you can find more solicitous, and perhaps even ideologically friendly, inquisitors from YouTube and elsewhere?

Finally, his Monday speech displayed his occasional mix of self-confidence cum arrogance with a seeming dose of uncharacteristic naivete. He may often think he’s the smartest guy in the room — and may often be — but sometimes, well, he isn’t. For example, there was this:

“And as I go into my last year, I spend a lot of time reflecting on how this system, how this crazy notion of self-government works; how can we make it work. And this is as important to making it work as anything — people getting information that they can trust, and that has substance and evidence and facts and truth behind it. In an era in which attention spans are short, it is going to be hard because you’re going to have to figure out ways to make it more entertaining, and you’re going to have to be more creative, not less. Because if you just do great reporting and nobody reads it, that doesn’t do anybody any good, either.”

“But 10, 20, 50 years from now, no one seeking to understand our age is going to be searching the Tweets that got the most retweets, or the post that got the most likes. They’ll look for the kind of reporting, the smartest investigative journalism that told our story and lifted up the contradictions in our societies, and asked the hard questions and forced people to see the truth even when it was uncomfortable.”

Really? Yes, this was right up its alley for a crowd that came to herald great reporting. But it may also constitute wishful thinking.

Journalism still can change our lives and institutions, as the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight” reminds in showcasing work of the Boston Globe on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Great reporting is done daily, though probably much less of it on a local level as newsrooms are stripped as publishers fumble with declining revenues and making real dough off online efforts.

But the president who railed in the same speech about the coarse nature of the current presidential campaign should infer some lessons about the extent to which people now trust the reliability of information, regardless of the source. The onus is not just on media for falling short on calling politicians on their small and big deceits, as Obama suggested.

Yes, you can generalize that the press missed the boat on the Donald Trump phenomenon. But it’s been in overdrive for quite a bit on assessing his bombastic claims. Still, just step back and consider how everyone from fact-checking zealots to our finest comic satirists have not yet upended a man whose false declarations are, well, huge, incredible, just amazing.

And, finally, take a look at the sky-high independent expenditures now running rampant in the political realm.

Why waste a lot of time convincing ABC News, CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, YouTube or garage podcasters of the virtue of your positions when you can simply promote them yourself with millions of dollars in ads?

The uncomfortable task may be the Herculean one left to us journalists in getting folks to confront the truth. In 10, 20 or 50 years, they may be looking our way even less than they do now.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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