Secrecy and the Obama White House

eyeglasses and newspaper blue background

News broke this week that Michelle Obama’s trip to China would not only be press-free, but the First Lady would also not be giving any interviews. None, whatsoever. Even the New York Times seemed taken aback in its coverage of the press-free trip [1], and Times columnist Nicholas Kristof took to Twitter to call the move a “mistake” that “signals weakness or fear of coverage.” [2]

But that’s not the only news that’s come out of the White House recently that signals an antagonistic approach to dealing with transparency and the press. Apparently President Obama and his team use three tactics in ensuring reporters stick to the interview time limit of three minutes: a countdown clock, an aide standing nearby, and the requirement that reporters conduct interviews standing up.

“Yeah, and it sounds like the pressure is on when some guy is standing behind him with a countdown clock,” said a local CBS Arizona reporter in describing the tactics. “That’s a little ridiculous.” [3]

Despite the president’s early promises that his administration would be “the most open and transparent in history,” time has told otherwise. In other words, reality hasn’t matched the rhetoric.

Back in 2012, Politico ran a story about the administration raising unprecedented barriers to Freedom of Information Act requests, and cracking down harshly on leakers and whistleblowers. [4] A year earlier, the Justice Department attempted to use a federal appeals court to force a New York Times reporter to reveal confidential sources. [5]  Moreover, a 2013 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists detailed the administration’s no-holds-barred approach to criminally prosecuting accused leakers, and appointing “spokespeople” that are “often unresponsive or hostile to press inquiries.” [6] And let’s not forget New York Times editor Jill Abramson’s charge that “This is the most secretive White House I have ever dealt with.” [7]

What does it say about a White House that remains hostile to reporters, but considers an unserious, satirical sit-down with Zach Galifianakis on “Funny or Die” a media interview? [8] Understandably there are more questions here than answers. But Obama’s closed-off White House sends a chilling message to anyone seeking the truth about what the administration does behind closed doors. We were promised transparency. What we’ve gotten is silence and secrecy. In a free society, the consequences of that are severe.