When the open-government activist group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sued the Bush administration to get the records of White House visitors from Secret Service logs, media outlets practically fell over themselves to join the effort. Newspapers like the Washington Post and USA Today and wire services like AP and Reuters filed amicus briefs with the court, and the Obama administration eventually agreed to start releasing the records. Now, however, the same news organizations have discovered a new sense of privacy when it comes to their attendance in an off-the-record event with Barack Obama:
White House reporters are keeping quiet about an off-the-record lunch today with President Obama — even those at news organizations who’ve advocated in the past for the White House to release the names of visitors.
But the identities of the lunch’s attendees won’t remain secret forever: Their names will eventually appear on the White House’s periodically updated public database of visitor logs. The White House posts them with a three-month lag, so records of August visits won’t be available until late November. (Although, since many of those invited already work in the White House every day, their lunch visit may not register.)
Michael Calderone and John Cook point out the hypocrisy:
And guess who filed briefs supporting that argument? Virtually every newspaper that covers the White House.
The Washington Post filed an amicus brief in in February 2008 arguing that the names of White House visitors should be released, and it was joined by the Associated Press, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal owner Dow Jones, USA Today, the Hearst Corporation, the New York Daily News, the Newspaper Guild, the Society of Professional Journalists, and a host of other news outlets.
There are a couple of notable exceptions. The New York Times refused to attend the event, and for good reason. The Gray Lady wants more public interaction with the President, who has been remarkably shy about holding press conferences. He has only held two in the past year, the Gulf spill event that Obama couldn’t avoid, and the infamous July 2009 prime-time press conference in which he accused Cambridge, Massachusetts police of “acting stupidly” without bothering to learn the facts of the arrest of Henry “Skip” Gates.
The Washington Examiner didn’t get an invitation to the luncheon, but claimed they would have revealed their participation had they accepted one:
So far only the New York Times is saying it declined the invite — a droll bit of high-mindedness, considering Obama mostly loves the NYT and they get tons more access than most, anyway. So refusing to have an off-the-record lunch with the president in company with 11 or so other filthy scribes in soiled ties, rumpled jackets and scuffed heels does what?
Still (grudgingly) — it’s important to remind the president that we want to hear from him on the record, so it’s helpful for the NYT to take that stand, even if it costs them nothing.
But there is another uncomfortable issue to be addressed here: The press is constantly pushing for more transparency from the administration, demanding to know who he meets with and who comes and goes. So when it’s us he meets with we suddenly get all shy and private?
The Times has the metrics to back up its complaint:
Through July 20, Ms. Kumar counted 36 press conferences since Mr. Obama took office. That compares with the same number for the second President Bush, 66 for President Clinton and 54 for the elder President Bush the same amount of time into their presidencies.
But that leaves out some context. Obama was holding press conferences every week or two in his first months in office, which is why he got to 35 by the end of July 2009, when it became clear that Obama was a gaffe machine when off of the Teleprompter. Since then, he’s held a grand total of one, and it doesn’t look like the White House has any more planned after the late May Gulf spill presser.
When media outlets participate in off-the-record events, they give Obama a chance to spin coverage without doing so on the record. It wouldn’t be a problem if Obama made himself regularly available in an open Q&A setting to the press corps, which complained when Obama’s predecessor would go a couple of months between pressers. With the White House butting up Obama and keeping him off the record, participation in the luncheon is really just enabling the silence. If media outlets felt so strongly about transparency as to demand the White House visitor logs, the least they can do is to acknowledge their own roles in letting this President off the hook for accountability and transparency.