WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama accepted an award for making the government more open and transparent – presented to him behind closed doors with no media coverage or public access allowed.
The discrepancy between the honor and the circumstances under which it was delivered bothered open-government advocates in attendance, they said Thursday. They were even more perturbed when they discovered later that the meeting hadn't even been listed on Obama's public schedule, so there was no way for anyone to know about it.
"To have such a meeting not be transparent is the height of irony. How absurd can that be?" said one participant, Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which keeps tabs on the White House Office of Management and Budget.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that, "Given the number of pressing items on the president's agenda, the White House didn't carve out time for a public event on the president's schedule for the sole purpose of accepting an award from journalists praising his commitment to government transparency."
The award was given by Bass's group and several others Monday to recognize Obama's work toward government openness and encourage him to do more.
Obama took office promising the most open and transparent administration in history, and advocates have been encouraged by steps he's taken including releasing White House visitor logs. They say more needs to be done in getting agencies to respond more thoroughly to public records requests, among other things.
Monday's meeting was rescheduled from one set for March 16, which is National Freedom of Information Day. On that day the meeting was listed on the president's public schedule, but it was canceled at the last minute.
Bass said he'd been assured that Monday's meeting would be open to the media and didn't learn it wouldn't be until arriving at the White House.
Nonetheless he and other advocates were pleased with how the 20-minute discussion went, saying Obama expressed support for greater transparency and backed legislation to protect reporters' confidential sources.
A couple of days later they learned from reporters that the meeting had been omitted from Obama's public schedule altogether.
"I think the action by the White House has taken a meeting where the storyline could have been how to strengthen disclosure, and it's become a storyline about how the meeting is a secret meeting," Bass said.