The Society of Environmental Journalists recently submitted an open letter calling on the new administration in Washington, D.C., to take immediate steps to restore openness and transparency to the federal government, and we’d like to second that motion.
If you think you’ve noticed a steady rise in the number of news articles about government agencies that include a phrase such as “officials declined to comment for this story” or “an agency spokesperson did not respond to requests for an interview,” you’re right.
Even more insidious is the growing resistance to providing access to scientists, inspectors and other agency employees for interviews, or, in cases where interviews are permitted, the insistence that an official “minder” must be present to keep an eye on things.
Also on the rise are delays and fees for the fulfillment of public records requests.
While the federal government may be the worst offender, this kind of obstructionism is also a growing concern at the state and local level.
It all adds up to a curtain of secrecy being raised between the public and the actions of their government, making it harder for the news media to hold government accountable.
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This sort of thing can be — and frequently is — taken to ridiculous extremes. To cite just a few examples:
A couple of years ago, we set out to do a story on the renovation of the Environmental Protection Agency building on the Oregon State University campus. We assumed it would be a simple construction story: We’d get a tour of the building with an agency official, talk about the renovations and how much they were costing taxpayers, and snap a few photos of the construction project.
We should have known better. After multiple email exchanges with various EPA officials, including being asked to submit a list of questions in advance, we were told that no one would be made available for an interview, no building tour would be provided, and there would be no opportunity for photography.
On another occasion, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson told a reporter for this newspaper that an investigation into a pilot who buzzed an Oregon State University graduation ceremony towing a “Go Ducks” banner had been concluded but declined to disclose the outcome for attribution.
But the most outrageous example may have come from a regional EPA public information officer who, when asked about an audit of potentially toxic chemicals at a Corvallis industrial plant, responded with “No comment — but you can’t attribute that to me.”
This sort of behavior has undeniably grown worse under the presidency of Donald Trump, who learned early on that he could dodge responsibility for his actions and fire up his base at the same time by demonizing the mainstream media as “enemies of the people” and “fake news.”
But as the letter from the Society of Environmental Journalists points out, the tendency of the federal government to shield its actions from public view by freezing out the press started long before Trump got to Washington — and got worse, rather than better, during the Obama-Biden administration.
To reverse that troubling trend, the SEJ calls on the Biden-Harris administration to take several steps, including:
• Hire truthful and responsive people to staff the press offices at the White House and all federal agencies.
• Ensure that scientists and other agency employees are free to talk to reporters about their work, without minders or advance permission from the press office.
• Reform public records regulations and reduce the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests.
• Work with Congress to outlaw assault and harassment of journalists and enact a federal shield law to protect confidential sources.
“For the sake of our democracy, it’s time to lower the information barriers, stop the spin, condemn violence against journalists and restore transparency and accountability,” the SEJ letter argues. “You won’t like every story published or aired, but that’s the price — and the measure — of a free society.”
We couldn’t agree more.