Ethics Heroes: American Journalists. Finally.

"Wait, I didn't hear you say, 'Thank-you, sir, may I have another!"

“Wait, I didn’t hear you say, ‘Thank-you, sir, may I have another!”

It is heartening, I suppose, that the subjugation of independent journalism to the Democratic party and its leadership is not yet total, and that there are still limits to how much toadying and boot-licking the once-principled  professional will tolerate.

Incredibly, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest wrote a letter to the New York Times complaining that the  paper “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.” He concluded, “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?”

This required breath-taking gall. Indeed, journalists and others do remember the President’s transparency pledge, which he has breached at every turn. Indeed, the lack of transparency in the administration has been a topic of discussion, complaint and anger for nearly eight years. It is especially bold for Earnest to make such an absurd claim—and indignantly!— as the President stumps for his former Secretary of State, who risked national security and breached protocol by employing a private server in order to avoid Freedom of Information Act access to her communications.

Assessments of journalists across the political spectrum, who can agree on little else, agree on this: Barack Obama’s administration is among the least open and transparent in history, and perhaps the least. A sample demonstrates the fact: CNN, The Atlantic, The Daily Caller, Democracy Now, Truth Revolt, Associated Press, The Washington Post, The National Journal’s Ron Fournier, the Wall Street Journal, and too many others to list.

How could Earnest (which is to say, his boss) even attempt to squeeze a statement from the press that would be the exact opposite of the truth, and have the chutzpah to  demand that it be in the form of praise? The answer should be obvious: the President has no reason to respect the news media, which has been incompetent, timid, fearful and compliant with Administration propaganda and spin from the start.

In addition, a theme of this administration has been to employ Orwellian interpretations of the administration’s performance at every turn, usually with media assistance. Failures are successes, marginal improvements are miraculous victories. An epic decline in racial trust and comity qualifies as improved race relations.  An irresponsible deal with a rogue state determined to fry Israel makes the world safer. A doubled national debt shows progress in fiscal management. We are winning the war against terrorism, and Bowe Bergdahl was a military hero. Day is night and white is black. No wonder Earnest felt that a President who has consistently defied his transparency promise could  get away with claiming that he had kept it, and could command applause.

But eventually even the most lowly worms can turn if you abuse them enough, and the journalists, to their credit, decided this was one filthy boot they would not lick clean while crying out on cue, “YUM YUM!” In a letter sent to Earnest (and copied to the President) the Society of Professional Journalists and a coalition of 40 groups set the record straight:

Mr. Josh Earnest
White House Press Secretary
The White House
Washington, D.C.
Sept. 12, 2016

Dear Mr. Earnest,

Last December, a delegation representing more than 50 journalism and government accountability organizations met with you at the White House to express deep concern about, and urge greater openness and transparency from, the federal government. The meeting followed at least five years of work done by various organizations to study government transparency and the role public information officers (PIOs) play in relaying important information to the American people.

In a recent New York Times letter to the editor, you urged journalists to give President Obama credit for government transparency. You highlight some of the ways the Obama administration has improved transparency in the White House. Yet, the 50-plus groups repeatedly outlined to the administration various ways transparency has gotten worse, including:

• Officials blocking reporters’ requests to talk to specific staff people;
• Excessive delays in answering interview requests that stretch past reporters’ deadlines;
• Officials conveying information “on background,” refusing to give reporters what should be public information unless they agree not to say who is speaking;
• Federal agencies blackballing reporters who write critically of them.
• A continued lack of meaningful visual access to the President by an independent press pool

You say in your letter that effective advocacy means giving credit where it is due. That will happen when journalists believe meaningful improvements have been made. The actions the Obama administration has taken to invite journalists to cover the President’s formal remarks at fund-raisers, information being made available on and releasing names of White House visitors are all steps in the right direction. But they’re not enough. And we believe the problems outweigh what you are calling accomplishments.

We are extremely disappointed that, despite a promise to get back to us after that meeting at the White House on Dec. 15, 2015, we have yet to hear anything from you. We are disappointed that, nine months later, nothing has improved. We are disappointed that, as we rapidly approach the election of a new
president, we cannot use the Obama administration as an example of how it should be done. To rephrase your last question – if this President’s transparency effort is such a disappointment and the press does not object why would future administrations consider being more open?

But we do object. President Obama may be leaving the White House, but we aren’t going anywhere. Our promise to the American people is to keep fighting for their right to know what their elected officials are up to. To keep fighting for information and images they need to know and see to live their best, most informed, lives as American citizens. It’s the least we can do.


American Copy Editors Society
American Society of Journalists & Authors
American Society of News Editors
Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association
Asian American Journalists Association
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Association of Alternative Newsmedia
Association of Opinion Journalists
Bill of Rights Defense Committee & Defending Dissent Foundation
CCTV Center for Media & Democracy
Center for Scholastic Journalism
College Media Association
Colorado Press Women
Colorado Press Women
Committee to Protect Journalists
Demand Progress
Freedom of the Press Foundation
Inter American Press Association
Journalism and Women Symposium
Journalism Education Association
Local Independent Online News Publishers
National Association of Black Journalists
National Association of Hispanic Journalists
National Association of Science Writers
National Federation of Press Women
National Press Photographers Association
National Scholastic Press Association
National Writers Association
Native American Journalists Association
New England First Amendment Coalition
The Poynter Institute
Radio Television Digital News Association
Religion News Association
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Reporters Without Borders
Society of Environmental Journalists
Society of Professional Journalists
Student Press Law Center
Tully Center for Free Speech
UNITY: Journalists for Diversity
Cc: President Barack Obama

15 thoughts on “Ethics Heroes: American Journalists. Finally.

  1. Sorry, Jack, but there are no heroes among American journalists here. What’s notable about this letter is who DIDN’T sign; with the exception of the Poynter Institute – which IS, in fact, widely respected in journalistic circles, but is staffed mostly by retired veterans – most of the signatories are small associations of people who happen to share a common profession and hold a convention in an interesting place every year.

    This letter is spot on, but lacking the imprimatur of the Associated Press, any national broadcast network, major city newspaper or widely-respected online source, it will be considered sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    And it’s damned shame, because they’re correct.

  2. I recently enjoyed a spirited discussion with someone, and according to him, Today’s journalists have the same level of integrity, journalistic acumen, and tireless pursuit of the unvarnished truth as the boys of Ed. Murrows’s days.
    He is a Journalism professor at a local U, so I guess he must be right.

    • Today’s journalists think they are all Edward R. Murrows because they think Murrow, like them, would be a lefty Democrat if he were alive today and would be right all the time and the idiots in the country who didn’t agree with him, and certainly any and all Republicans, would be beneath contempt. Of course journalism professors think journalists are ethical. Professors have been pushing everything lefty for the last forty years to their students who are now running the media. Clearly, the guy is an idiot.

  3. “Day is night and white is black” is the default setting for corporate and governmental communications these days. Frankly, I think it got its start from the legal profession. “How do you know a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving.” And sure, lawyers are supposed to mount a vigorous defense on their client’s behalf for the legal system to work, but paid, professional lying being blared throughout the society has consequences. Maybe “in the old days” lawyers’ lying on behalf of their clients was contained to the courtroom and written correspondence. Now we see it all the time. Obama and most of his advisors are lawyers. Nixon was a lawyer. The Clintons were lawyers. Earnest’s directive to the NYT was clearly crafted by a lawyer. It’s a classic “shot across their bow” move. I don’t know what the solution is, but modern day social lawyering and TV lawyering and celebrity lawyering is a major source of the problem.

    I first noticed this when I was summer clerking and dragged along to a hearing on a divorce case issue. Opposing counsel had made a really lame argument in his pleading and at the hearing. I had assumed he would be laughed out of court. No one blinked. Everyone took it seriously and billed their time to their clients. It was a real eye opener. For the first time, I realized, if you said something, someone might just buy it. If you wrote it down, your odds were greatly improved. And if you cited some authority for the proposition, regardless of whether the authority stood for what you said it did, you were probably home free.

    And you can say, “people need to understand that lawyers are advocates for their clients” until you’re blue in the face, but that hope will not minimize the corrosive effect of criminal defense attorneys blabbing away on TV and being lauded for it and (perhaps unintentionally) held up as role models. The entire cult of celebrity lawyers has been catastrophic for the society as a whole. Frankly, I wish lawyers were still just gray guys with bad haircuts who went downtown to their offices in suits every day and did boring things and then came back home, drank martinis, had dinner and went to bed.

    • Sad but true that are far as I can see, there aren’t many Atticus Finches out there. The one’s that do the tedious work of making wills and trusts seem to be an exception. Tax Attornies are definitely needed to deal with the IRS as long as we have our impossibly complex tax system. As far as Defense Attornies, I am reminded of the old joke: “What do you call a bus load of lawyers going over a cliff? A good start!”

      • Well, Jack’s right. Lawyers serve a purpose in the legal system, and I don’t go with “first we kill all the lawyers, but the lying in society is a problem, whether it’s called spin or a vigorous defense.

  4. “why would future presidential candidates make it (transparency) a priority?”

    You gotta be effin’ kidding me!

    That’s supposed to deflect the “Most Transparent Administration EVAH!!!!” accepting an award for transparency in a ceremony closed to the press?

    Or the late Über Lefty Helen Thomas’ blistering indictment of former spokesweasel Robert Gibbs trying to explain his handlers cozy relationship with a certain HuffPo operative:

    “Nixon didn’t try to do that,” Thomas said. “They couldn’t control (the media). They didn’t try.

    “What the hell do they think we are, puppets?” Thomas said. “They’re supposed to stay out of our business. They are our public servants. We pay them.”

    Regrettably, Other Bill is right about ” if you said something, someone might just buy it.”

    Why else would the Lyin’ Queen think she could get away with telling a “Four Pinocchios/Pantsuit-on-Fire” rated lie (“Comey said my answers were truthful”) twice to a national audience in the span of three days?

    That could not illustrate better that she thinks her base is, for the most part, a bunch of blithering addlepates.

    Though that is one thing with which I won’t disagree completely.

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