Thursday, January 22, 2009

Transparency vs. access

Back in April 2007, Michael Wolff wrote an excellent piece about Scooter Libby's fall. Here's part of Wolff's account of why Scooter got into trouble:
The one constant I’ve observed, in 27 years as an on-again, off-again political reporter, is that Republicans return reporters’ calls and Democrats don’t. To a great extent, this is what got Scooter Libby into trouble, calling back The New York Times’s Judy Miller and Time’s Matt Cooper. Libby is a superb example of the much-vaunted Republican Party message discipline—he’s got tenacious follow-through. He’s one of the people who helped give the Bush administration its reputation—intact as recently as 24 months ago—as the most masterful iteration of Republican media management, a leviathan of political marketing.

Republican shills never had any trouble giving people access. The right reporters got the access they needed to print their stories, their big scoops, replete with quotations from unnamed administration sources.

No, the problem wasn't a lack of access. It was a lack of transparency. Sure, Judy Miller got fed all kinds of juicy tidbits about our upcoming invasion of Iraq. Then, in exchange for that access, she printed those lies as facts and helped the administration sell the war. And nobody ever knew exactly where the information was coming from or how they might verify it.

This was a pretty standard MO for the Bush people. Print our nonsense (but not our names), and we'll give you the access.

In any case, in the early days of the Obama Administration, some people have gotten these two concepts confused:
"The young Obama administration has talked often about transparency, but that, as the Constitution makes clear, means more than the government creating Web sites to send messages to supporters," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.

"It means allowing the press, an independent institution, to see what's going on," Rosenstiel said. "It remains to be seen exactly what the Obama team means, with its love of control, when it talks about an open government."

So, what exactly is Mr. Rosenstiel talking about? Some key new policy that the press is not being told about? Perhaps a closed door meeting with energy executives where they tell Vice President Biden what our energy policy should be?

No, Roesenstiel is actually talking about this silly second swearing-in Obama did because some whackjobs on Fox News started to crow about whether the first, botched oath actually meant that Obama was not our president.

Now, maybe Obama should have let more press in for this thing. I don't see how it would've hurt. But not letting more press in doesn't say anything about whether the Obama Administration will be transparent or whether we'll have "an open government" for the next four years.

I'm all for transparency, and I'd love to see a robust Fourth Estate in the next four years and beyond. But let's not confuse transparency and openness with some reporters' insatiable hunger for access.

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