Judicial Watch announced this morning that it has a series of e-mails between the White House and Irving Kagan, the brother of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, that blocked a New York Times reporter from access to him. Sharon Otterman had already made arrangements to sit in on Kagan’s class at Hunter College High School as a way to get some background on Barack Obama’s nominee. As soon as Otterman informed the White House of the arrangement, however, White House media relations officer Joshua Earnest told Kagan to cancel it — and to stop granting media access without checking with the White House:
Judicial Watch, the public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption, announced today that it has obtained documents from Hunter College High School regarding a White House effort to deny New York Times education reporter Sharon Otterman access to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s brother Irving, who currently teaches at the New York school. Otterman requested and received permission from both the school and Irving Kagan to attend one of Mr. Kagan’s constitutional law classes before White House Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest intervened. “I’m definitely not comfortable with that at this point,” Earnest wrote to Ms. Otterman on May 11, 2010.
Earnest instructed Irving Kagan in an email on May 11 to direct press inquiries directly to the White House:
“This reporter says she has permission from you and from the school to sit in on your class. I’ve articulated my concerns to the [Hunter College public relations representative] Meredith [Halpern] – who now says she agrees with me. I’ve articulated my concerns to the reporter, who’s feeling misled that we’re telling her no and she says she was told yes.
“In the future, it’s important to direct all reporter inquiries to the White House. It’ll be easier for you to stay out of the middle of these conversations if you send them directly to us without responding.”
It doesn’t seem like a big problem for a reporter from the New York Times to audit a constitutional law class taught by Kagan’s brother. Nor, of course, is it an issue if the White House wants to request that Irving Kagan allow them to handle media requests. But the patronizing tone, as well as Earnest’s quick intercession to block the Times from Kagan’s classroom, look like a White House determined to quash legitimate media review of high-profile appointees, especially to a lifetime appointment for the highest court in the nation.
Earlier, I contacted Sharon Otterman, who covers education for the Times, to ask for her response:
I’m glad that Judicial Watch got these documents via our state’s Freedom of Information Law. It was helpful for me to see the parts of this exchange that I had not been privy to.
Is this a scandal? It certainly doesn’t meet the standards Barack Obama himself promised of delivering the most transparent administration in history, but there are far more scandalous examples than this. This does make the White House look defensive and petty, especially considering Otterman’s education beat; it seems rather clear that Otterman was looking for human-interest background relating Kagan’s nomination to education.
I have also contacted Joshua Earnest for comment on this story. If I receive a response, I will update the post.