POLITICS
08/31/2016 03:00 pm ET

Josh Earnest Wants The New York Times To Give Obama Credit For Transparency

He makes a tissue-thin case.
Josh Earnest keeps using the word "transparent." I do not think it means what he thinks it means.
Susan Walsh/Associated Press
Josh Earnest keeps using the word "transparent." I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg made the simple observation this week that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, as she crisscrosses the country on the campaign trail, uses two planes ― in one of which she sequesters the traveling press corps. Rutenberg notes, accurately, that this is “a departure from how presidential candidates ... have dealt with their dedicated press corps” since the era of journalists flying hither and yon with presidential contenders began about a half-century ago.

Somehow, this piece inspired White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest to dash off a letter to The New York Times, demanding that the paper properly credit President Barack Obama for being a leader in the arena of government transparency. Per Earnest:

In “Plane Rides and Presidential Transparency” (Mediator column, Aug. 29), Jim Rutenberg criticized the leading presidential candidates for their lack of transparency, but did not acknowledge the important and unprecedented steps that the Obama administration has taken to fulfill the president’s promise to lead the most transparent White House in history.

Having read Rutenberg’s piece, I’m finding it very difficult to fathom (a) how it inspired Earnest’s reaction and (b) how it inspired this reaction in particular. Rutenberg has nothing to say about the larger concept of government transparency ― his column is about the relationship between Clinton and the reporters with whom she travels and the distance at which she keeps them.

In fact, Rutenberg makes only passing mention of Obama, though what he does say is absolutely true:

Right now, every signal from Mrs. Clinton is that should she win, her administration would continue the tradition of being still more secretive than the one before it; the Obama White House has achieved just that with its abysmal record on fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests and its record of prosecuting whistle-blowers who have shared national security information with the press.

I’m guessing that this is what earned the rancor of Josh Earnest, who I’ll remind you has the specific job of managing the press’s access to the president and shading news stories to the White House’s advantage. In his letter to the Times, it is not a criticism that Earnest responds to particularly well:

These accomplishments include, but are not limited to, routinely and proactively releasing the name, date and time of nearly every White House visitor. Some will recall that the previous administration went to the Supreme Court to try to prevent the release of these records.

President Obama, as a matter of policy, invites White House journalists to cover his formal remarks at fund-raisers, even when they are held in a private home. Previous presidents have granted, at best, intermittent access to such events.

The Obama administration has also proactively released more than 180,000 data sets on a federal government website named, appropriately enough, Data.gov. This means that reporters and citizens have access to mind-boggling amounts of data — that they may not even have known existed — without having to formally request it.

This is not the best case to make if you want to argue that the Obama administration has made major accomplishments in the arena of government transparency. In the first place, while the Data.gov portal is a very nice innovation from a user-interface perspective, it was always possible to obtain the data contained therein. That information, by the way, can fairly be labeled “All The Data The Government Wants You To Have, Anyway,” because if this information was going to be a source of routine trouble to them, they would absolutely make us file a FOIA request to obtain it.

Additionally, the White House has a workaround to the whole “White House Visitors’ Log” thing that’s one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington. It’s so poorly kept, in fact, that the very paper from whom Earnest is attempting to obtain “credit” has reported on the workaround at great length. Here’s Eric Lichtblau, from June 2010:

Here at the Caribou on Pennsylvania Avenue, and a few other nearby coffee shops, White House officials have met hundreds of times over the last 18 months with prominent K Street lobbyists — members of the same industry that President Obama has derided for what he calls its “outsized influence” in the capital.

On the agenda over espressos and lattes, according to more than a dozen lobbyists and political operatives who have taken part in the sessions, have been front-burner issues like Wall Street regulation, health care rules, federal stimulus money, energy policy and climate control — and their impact on the lobbyists’ corporate clients.

But because the discussions are not taking place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they are not subject to disclosure on the visitors’ log that the White House releases as part of its pledge to be the “most transparent presidential administration in history.”

The only thing that’s changed during the Obama administration is that the Caribou Coffee shop is now a Peet’s Coffee. (In fairness, this is a slight improvement.)

Google Maps

And as The Washington Post’s Jason Ross Arnold noted in March 2015:

Related to the visitors log is the administration’s checkered support for the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), widely known as the “open meetings law.” The administration did not try to sidestep FACA as frequently as some of its predecessors, but officials have played word games, such as calling private-sector participants on the post-Newtown, Conn., gun control task force “consultants” instead of “members.” That helped the administration conceal meeting records and member names.

The administration also has deployed other evasive tactics, including simply ignoring FACA. Officials have liberally utilized FACA’s court-validated loopholes, FOIA exemptions and the classification stamp to close more than 60 percent of committee meetings to the public — about the same number as under the Bush administration.

As for journalists being permitted to attend fundraisers “even when they are held in a private home,” I’d still call that “at best, intermittent access to such events.” The reporters to whom I have unfettered access, in fact, all greet this contention with the hardest of eyerolls, noting that at best we’re talking about momentary access to Obama’s remarks at these fundraisers, not the sort of “all-access pass” situation that Earnest seems to describe above. 

But don’t take my word for it ― let’s see what we can find in 20 seconds of Googling:

With President Obama shifting into campaign mode to raise money for his re-election effort, the White House has generally let reporters inside the events at least long enough to record what he says to his top donors.

This week, though, Obama departed from that practice, meeting for more than an hour with big-dollar contributors ― all behind closed doors.

The “campaign event,” as the White House billed it, was at the boutique Jefferson Hotel in Northwest Washington. A Democratic official said about 20 people attended and paid the maximum amount allowed: $35,800 for a ticket.

But anything Obama told the group remains secret. The administration justified the decision to bar reporters by saying Obama wasn’t making a “formal” speech.

President Obama began his October campaign activities on Thursday — behind closed doors.

The president attended a fundraiser for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn on Thursday, looking to boost the embattled Democrat facing a tough reelection battle this fall.

According to the Quinn campaign, the 25 attendees at the lunchtime event paid $50,000 each to attend. 

It’s not known what the president’s message to the high-dollar Democratic donors was. Reporters were kept outside the Gold Coast home of Meredith Bluhm-Wolf, the chairwoman of a private investment company.

President Obama dined with Hollywood A-listers and top Disney executives in Los Angeles during a quick visit for political fundraisers.

He spent Thursday night in Bel-Air for a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reception and dinner with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the committee’s chairman, Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.).

Oh, wait, that’s good news! Reporters got to attend this fundraiser! It was probably a really frabjous day for them, too. However, as Shalby went on to report, it was not to last:

On Friday morning, Obama is scheduled to turn his attention to helping Senate Democrats, who have a legitimate chance of reclaiming control of that chamber. He’ll appear at a $33,400-per-couple breakfast hosted by Jennifer and Tobey Maguire in Los Angeles. The event has been described by the White House as a “roundtable” and is closed to reporters.

:( :( :(,” said reporters, I’m sure, faced with this sort of intermittent access. (I guess they’ll all get to brandish Earnest’s letter-to-the-editor in any future instances.)

There are, perhaps, better examples that Earnest could use to prop up the notion that Obama deserves credit for transparency, but for him to do so would probably invite scrutiny over what’s really been something of a mixed bag in terms of keeping that promise. All of which leads us back, inevitably, to what Earnest hoped to accomplish by needling the Times over this Rutenberg piece. Per Earnest:

If journalists don’t acknowledge steps that the Obama administration has taken to strengthen transparency, then who will? Leading the fight for government transparency means confronting politicians who face intense political pressure on narrow, short-term interests and pressing them to prioritize transparency, too, even when it’s politically inconvenient — especially when it’s politically inconvenient. In this regard, impartial journalists are advocates.

Effective advocacy means giving credit where it is due. If President Obama’s government transparency effort is not even noted by The Times’s media columnist, then why would future presidential candidates make it a priority?

So, if I have this straight, we cannot reasonably expect Hillary Clinton to have reporters with her on the same plane unless those same reporters bend over backward to constantly point out what a great job the Obama administration has done to “strengthen transparency.”

But if we accepted this task, citing the same areas that Earnest cites ― a new government website, the visitors’ log “reform,” reporters at fundraisers ― not only would we be doing a disservice to our readers by pretending that these were, indeed, special examples of openness when they aren’t; we’d actually be sending an entirely different message to “future presidential candidates”: “Walk all over us, we don’t care.”

Again, it’s very strange that Earnest picked this particular Rutenberg piece and this particular moment to come in hotter than a plate of tater tots, complaining about the short shrift Obama is getting in terms of transparency. He could have just as easily let this matter slide. But that he went in on this with an argument as transparently nontransparent as the one he offered ... well, it tells you all you need to know, doesn’t it?

The Huffington Post

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Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

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