So, after running a campaign with Bush-like discipline in press relations, President Barack Obama promised a "new standard of openness" on his first day in office. His administration is rolling out regulations to ensure a more transparent government. His aides have been addressing citizens online, bypassing reporters to reach the public directly. All this makes the Washington press corps, already struggling with low approval ratings and low profits, potentially less relevant.
If Obama's administration operates anything like his campaign, it will both sideline and compete with the media as a news source.
The transition team provided a great range of video, official documents, e-mail bulletins and other content for interested citizens. Then, last week, Obama's aides clearly entered the White House with disintermediation on their minds. Scrapping the traditional wire photo shoot of the new president at his desk, Obama's aides simply published their own.
Ditto for Round Two of the swearing-in, which was largely closed to the press. " The same day that the president is talking about transparency, we were not let in, reporter Ed Henry declared on CNN. Several news agencies, to their credit, refused to circulate those government photos. As one AP official explained, their duty is to document news about the administration -- not regurgitate "visual press releases" produced by the administration.
It is great, of course, for the White House to release photos or documents or any other material. Obama's openness is a welcome change from his predecessor, who went all the way to the Supreme Court to hide the RSVP list for a single policy meeting. And transparency is intrinsically good, since in a democracy, very little government activity is legitimately secret.
Transparency reform and government information, however, are no substitutes for journalistic access and original reporting.
In fact, the administration's new openness might even function as little more than another unfiltered route to disseminate its view. If the information is offered to supplant independent reporting -- as in the photo disputes -- and only flows in one direction, then the government simply amplifies its already sizable megaphone. A louder government with less journalism does not enrich our democratic process.
The key is to couple government transparency with meaningful interaction. That means open, accountable engagement with the press and the public. As it happens, this is an area where the traditional press can now play a powerful and constructive role. It is also one where Obama's aides have already come up short.
Take a recent experiment in citizen journalism, (which many HuffPo readers will recall). After soliciting tens of thousands of citizen questions via Change.gov during the transition, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs refused to answer the most popular question, about prosecuting torture and illegal spying, earlier this month. The question drew thousands of votes, including mine, because the issue was important -- and no reporter (or citizen) had managed to get an answer out of Obama's team.
The experiment could have simply ended with Gibbs rebuffing all those people who participated. Days after Gibbs dodged, however, ABC's George Stephanopoulos picked up where Change.gov left off. Noting that the question was ignored, he pressed it on Obama during a television interview. By using his access to amplify the public's voice, Stephanopoulos elicited new information from Obama, who said he was more focused on moving forward than enforcing the law. Stephanopoulos also fortified these new online portals for citizen interaction with the administration. Meanwhile, Gibbs saw that when he ducked a digital hardball, it swiftly hit his boss.
Now, the White House press corps is not going to outsource its journalistic priorities to the public, of course, and politicians often avoid questions regardless of the source. These are still new collaborative opportunities, though, to foster the access that the press desperately needs and the public deserves.
If legitimate questions from citizens are rejected online, reporters can back them up in White House briefings and press conferences.
If the administration provides information only as a unitary marketing operation, citizens may join the media protest.
And if it ever seems like Obama's commitment to grass-roots, two-way communication is fading away, like so many campaign memories, citizens and reporters can collaborate to put meaningful openness on the agenda.
The public and the press have been at odds lately. Yet when it comes to pressing Obama on coupling transparency with public interaction, as the saying goes, we are the ones we've been waiting for.
Update Response to Readers: Several readers comment on how the media's poor journalistic performance during the Bush era makes it even more vital for public officials to take their message directly to the public. There are also several thoughtful critiques of the White House press corps' priorities. I responded to multiple people in the comment thread below.
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