An Open Rant to College Officials: ‘Stop the Spin & Let the Sunshine In’

A whole bunch of very important people representing a slew of über-significant journalism, media and open government organizations very recently wrote a letter to President Barack Obama with a simple, heartfelt message: Open up, “stop the spin and let the sunshine in.”

More specifically, the leaders of 38 nationally-recognized orgs — including ACP, AEJMC, CMA, JEA, IRE, ONA, Poynter, SPJ and SPLC — banded together to form what I’m calling The Transparency Brigade. Their mission: “urging changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public.”

As one portion of the letter puts it, “Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”

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While the missive’s main purpose is pointing out and pushing for more government accountability, it is worth noting that similar, censorious restrictions are definitely evermore present within higher ed and collegemediatopia as well — at public and private schools.

They deserve their own Obama-esque open letter. But since it’s Thursday and it’s just me blogging, how about a short rant instead?

For example, as I have previously posted, university president searches are increasingly being conducted with insane levels of secrecy. A rising number of faculty and staff are also being required or strongly encouraged to stay silent or pivot to the media relations team when contacted by the press on any story that may be less than glowing about their schools. Similarly, top administrators have become almost entirely invisible to even their own campus media unless a Byzantine set of interviewing and reporting rules is approved. (Or they simply yell at you on the phone when you call for a comment.)

In addition, Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by student media and individual student journalists are at times met with silly bouts of resistance. And anyone who has ever run or advised a student news outlet knows the only thing other than a “no comment” that will be offered by school officials on the record in the immediate aftermath of a campus controversy or tragedy is a statement so canned it makes an in-flight meal look organic.

The result of all this candor pooh-poohing, closed-door decision-making and media massaging: a growing gap among academia’s elite, the student press and the truth.

So, as The Transparency Brigade is imploring POTUS (president of the United States), my rallying cry to HEPWM (Higher Education People Who Matter): “[S]top the spin and let the sunshine in.” (Can you also stop raising tuition? Oh, and please add more campus parking spots. And what can you do about 8 a.m. classes and cafeteria food?)

Here’s the full letter the Brigade sent to Obama:

President Barack Obama

The White House

Washington, D.C

July 8, 2014

Mr. President,

You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.

Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.

The stifling of free expression is happening despite your pledge on your first day in office to bring “a new era of openness” to federal government – and the subsequent executive orders and directives which were supposed to bring such openness about.

Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level. Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely. When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title “spokesperson.” Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers. Agencies hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.

In many cases, this is clearly being done to control what information journalists – and the audience they serve – have access to. A survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote.

Some argue that controlling media access is needed to ensure information going out is correct. But when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. This is not a “press vs. government” issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions.

It has not always been this way. In prior years, reporters walked the halls of agencies and called staff people at will. Only in the past two administrations have media access controls been tightened at most agencies. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists without surveillance. Meanwhile, agency personnel are free speak to others — lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money — without these controls and without public oversight.

Here are some recent examples:

• The New York Times ran a story last December on the soon-to-be implemented ICD-10 medical coding system, a massive change for the health care system that will affect the whole public. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), one of the federal agencies in charge of ICD-10, wouldn’t allow staff to talk to the reporter.

• A reporter with Investigative Post, an online news organization in New York, asked three times without success over the span of six weeks to have someone at EPA answer questions about the agency’s actions regarding the city of Buffalo’s alleged mishandling of “universal waste” and hazardous waste.

• A journalist with Reuters spent more than a month trying to get EPA’s public affairs office to approve him talking with an agency scientist about the effects of climate change. The public affairs officer did not respond to him after his initial request, nor did her supervisor, until the frustrated journalist went over their heads and contacted EPA’s chief of staff.

The undersigned organizations ask that you seek an end to this restraint on communication in federal agencies. We ask that you issue a clear directive telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so. We believe that is one of the most important things you can do for the nation now, before the policies become even more entrenched.

We also ask you provide an avenue through which any incidents of this suppression of communication may be reported and corrected. Create an ombudsman to monitor and enforce your stated goal of restoring transparency to government and giving the public the unvarnished truth about its workings. That will go a long way toward dispelling Americans’ frustration and cynicism before it further poisons our democracy.

Further examples on the issue are provided as well as other resources.

Sincerely,

David Cuillier, President, Society of Professional Journalists 
Beth Parke, Executive Director, Society of Environmental Journalists
Kathryn Foxhall, Member, Society of Professional Journalists
Holly Spangler, President, American Agricultural Editors’ Association
Gil Gullickson, Board Chair, American Agricultural Editors’ Association Professional Improvement Foundation
Alexandra Cantor Owens, Executive Director, American Society of Journalists and Authors
Janet Svazas, Executive Director, American Society of Business Publication Editors
David Boardman, President, American Society of News Editors
Hoda Osman, President, Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association
Kathy Chow, Executive Director, Asian American Journalists Association
Diana Mitsu Klos, Executive Director, Associated Collegiate Press
Paula Poindexter, President, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Miriam Pepper, President, Association of Opinion Journalists
Lisa Graves, Executive Director, Center for Media and Democracy
Rachele Kanigel, President, College Media Association
Gay Porter DeNileon, President, Colorado Press Women
Sue Udry, Executive Director, Defending Dissent Foundation
Mark Newton, President, Journalism Education Association
Mark Horvit, Executive Director, Investigative Reporters and Editors
J.H. Snider, President, iSolon.org
Phyllis J. Griekspoor, President, North American Agricultural Journalists
Carol Pierce, Executive Director, National Federation of Press Women
Robert M. Williams Jr., President, National Newspaper Association
Bob Meyers, President, National Press Foundation
Charles Deale, Executive Director, National Press Photographers Association
Diana Mitsu Klos, Executive Director, National Scholastic Press Association
Mary Hudetz, President, Native American Journalists Association
Jane McDonnell, Executive Director, Online News Association
Patrice McDermott, Executive Director, OpenTheGovernment.org
Tim Franklin, President, The Poynter Institute
Danielle Brian, Executive Director, Project on Government Oversight
Jeff Ruch, Executive Director, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
George Bodarky, President, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated
Mike Cavender, Executive Director, Radio Television Digital News Association
Herb Jackson, President, Regional Reporters Association
Christophe Deloire, Secretary General, Reporters without Borders
Frank LoMonte, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center
Roy S. Gutterman, Director, Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University
David Steinberg, President, UNITY Journalists for Diversity

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