When Barack Obama first campaigned for his job, he promised “the most transparent administration ever” if elected. In fairness, Obama’s not the first presidential candidate who made that kind of promise, and the need for candidates to keep making it demonstrates the success Americans have had in electing someone who actually intends to deliver on that pledge. On the other hand, this White House seems to be more comically inept at even delivering a pretense of transparency — from the malevolent effort to rewrite FOIA rules to exclude themselves to the amusing irony of insisting on accepting a transparency award outside of the presence of the media.
Dylan Byers’ latest example leans much closer to the latter end of that spectrum. The First Lady has gone on a vacation to China, an important trading partner and emerging competitor at the least in the Pacific Rim, a trip that should have some public interest. After all, this isn’t just another trip to Hawaii or other domestic destinations, nor to a stable ally of the US like Spain. However, the White House has barred reporters from traveling with the taxpayer-funded vacation, and Byers wanted to get at least an explanation of why. Instead, he entered a catch-22 zone:
Shortly after noon on Wednesday, I reached out to the First Lady’s office to inquire about the decision. A spokesperson for the First Lady responded to my inquiry but declared the response “off the record,” meaning I wasn’t allowed to use the information therein. When I told the spokesperson that I needed a response I could use, the spokesperson replied with another off-the-record statement regarding the First Lady’s trip.
The spokesperson then wrote, “If you need something attributable, you can take this on background from a White House official…”
The statement that followed did not address my original inquiry. Instead, it offered a formulaic explanation about “the power and importance of education” and “reaching people,” followed by an explanation that the First Lady would participate in open press events and take questions online and in forums.
By now it was 5 p.m. ET, nearly five hours after my initial inquiry. When I told the spokesperson that I did not see why the quote needed to be anonymous and attributed to “a White House official,” the spokesperson said if I needed something on the record I could refer to the First Lady’s travel guidance and a transcript of a press call regarding the trip. These documents did not contain an answer to my question regarding why no reporters would be traveling with the First Lady.
In the end, Byers not only didn’t get an explanation, he didn’t even get a name to put on the record for an anodyne quote about the trip. There may well be a good explanation for making a taxpayer-funded vacation halfway around the world a media-free effort, but a transparent administration would at least make a public case for it. This looks more like a White House under siege — or perhaps an administration whose instincts are to stonewall first and entertain questions later as they see fit.
In another example that skews to the petty side, a local CBS affiliate reporter, Catherine Anaya, explained how their interview with Barack Obama had to be conducted standing up, with a countdown clock behind the President constantly reminding the reporter of her time limit:
“We immediately launched into our interview because there was a person standing behind him actually counting down to the four minutes. And by the time he answered my last question, I realized that we had already gone over the four minutes, so that’s why I took an opportunity to sort of ask a lighter question afterward because I figured at that point, you know, why not? I have nothing to lose,” said the local reporter.
“But what was interesting–a side note–is the reason why we’re standing, I was told by one of his staffers, is because he likes to get comfortable when he’s sitting and he tends to get very chatty. And so this was another way to keep him–and us–at the four minutes that they were suggesting that we not go over.”
Said the local anchor, “Yeah, and it sounds like the pressure is on when some guy is standing behind him with a countdown clock. That’s a little ridiculous.”
It’s not unusual at all for aides to remind journalists of time limitations during interviews. I will occasionally get frantic e-mails during TEMS appearances that I’ve run over the agreed-upon time limit, which I try very hard to honor, because those time limits help these newsmakers stay on schedule for other interviews like mine. The part about conducting the interview standing up sounds to me like a pretty good strategy in dealing with a subject who tends to filibuster, as we know Obama does in press conferences. However, holding a clock and ostentatiously counting down the seconds during the interview is “a little ridiculous,” as the local anchor says.
Anaya also claimed that the White House press office told her that reporters submit questions in advance for these interviews, something the White House and other correspondents hotly denied, Eric Wemple reported:
Such a practice, of course, would suggest collusion between the White House and the people it covers. It would also allow the White House to prepare for tough questions and provide even-more-canned responses to the questions asked.
Media critics were quick to jump on the claim as proof of such collusion.
Jake Tapper offered this powerful rebuttal:
Er … yeah, good point. ABC’s Jonathan Karl thinks this was a misunderstanding or misspeak on Anaya’s part:
— Jonathan Karl (@jonkarl) March 20, 2014
@NiceDeb I assume she was referring to Carney's staff preparing him by trying to anticipate what questions/topics will be asked
— Jonathan Karl (@jonkarl) March 20, 2014
That’s probably the case, although I’ve never interviewed the President. When I do get interviews, most (but not all) will have staffers ask what topics I want to cover, sometimes more specifically than others. Only once in more than 10 years did I get a question list, which prompted me to decline the interview (and don’t ask who it was, because I honestly can’t remember — happened several year ago, and it wasn’t anyone of consequence).
Finally, in order to be fair, we have to note that transparency in the media isn’t always attractive, either. CNN has transparently sensationalized its Flight 370 coverage, which Nate Beeler skewers today:
We’ve tried to keep up with events on Flight 370 without engaging in over-speculation, usually with one omnibus post each day to cover new developments. Even that can be too much if there aren’t any new developments at all, although this story has moved a fair amount each day. Here’s a pro-tip: When you start exploring the possibilities that a black hole has sucked an airplane into the Twilight Zone, it’s past time to move to a new topic.
Be sure to check out Nate’s blog for more of his excellent work.