Yesterday the Committee to Protect Journalism released a report on the Obama administration and the press. Much coverage of this report has rightly focused in on the clandestine nature of the White House about its activities, its employment of the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute leakers, and its attempts to control leaks through peer monitoring under the Insider Press Program. One of the more disturbing points this report raises is that while the name of the game might be “free and open,” there is nevertheless a large quantity of officially sanctioned communication only. The report cites Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen’s characterization of the administration’s message machine that they originally posted on Politico:
One authentically new technique pioneered by the Obama White House is government creation of content—photos of the president, videos of White House officials, blog posts written by Obama aides—which can then be instantly released to the masses through social media. And they are obsessed with taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other social media forum, not just for campaigning, but governing. They are more disciplined about cracking down on staff that leak, or reporters who write things they don’t like.
The report continues on discuss the White House’s preference for its own newscast West Wing Week to reporting by the fourth estate, and how it often redirects reporters to generated content rather than answering questions in person. While it serves the intentions of our elected officials to present content and spin stories in such a way that they remain elected, it is extremely worrisome to think that such user-generated content is not content merely to compete with external journalism, but is demonstrating a desire to supplant it.
Propaganda and spin are always a part of politics: one merely need to look to Thucydides’ account of of the Peloponnesian War to be assured of that. However, when the game of self-promotion begins to displace an open and effective dialogue with the public about the political reality, that harms our ability to interact in a dynamically democratic manner.
What the CPJ’s report highlights, more than anything, is that Obama’s strength as a campaigner has undermined his ability to enter into the complexities of political dialogue. Politics is a give and take, yet in this increasingly polarized political environment, which has come to a head in the shutdown, this give and take has devolved into a zero-sum game of partisan ideological push. The report employs the words of Eric Schmitt, national security correspondent of The New York Times, to describe this reality:
There’s almost an obligation to control the message the way they did during the campaign. More insidious than the chilling effect of the leaks investigations is the slow roll or stall. People say, ‘I have to get back to you. I have to clear it with public affairs.’
The particular mark of American democracy is authentic treatment of the issues. The less freedom the press has to present the facts to the public for an open discussion, the greater the blow is to the American experiment. When the fear of scrutiny, critique, and opposition become so strong as to stymie the conversation that America has engaged in since her inception, the liberty invested in the American people suffers the blow. Journalists must be free to report, and the public free to respond to those reports, to engage in political conversation. President Obama, and all those involved in politics, would do well to take this report seriously and remember that freedom of information does not just apply to forced disclosures.