Transparency Genie Transforms the Bottle

Is President Barack Obama less transparent than President George Bush? Even a minimum of research reveals a president who may avoid the White House press corps, but is willing to reach out to journalists from non-mainstream news organizations such as the Huffington Post or the Latino press. There’s already a book weighing in on this and other issues, The Promise: President Obama, Year One by Jonathan Alter (Simon and Schuster, May 2010).

In The Promise, for which Obama sat for hours of interviews, Alter says, “It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions about the president.”

The book, which Alter calls a first draft of history, offers insight into President Obama’s first year, highlighting his leadership style, the many domestic challenges confronting him, and his uneasy relationship with the media.

According to The Promise: “Obama worked on the theory that being so accessible at the top—he was on TV more than any of his predecessors—compensated for his tight control over those under him. But history suggested that whenever the White House battened down the media hatches, water eventually came through anyway, and with much greater force.”

A brouhaha erupted over this issue of transparency recently when the Carol Pardun, president of the Association of Educators of Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC), issued a statement criticizing the Obama administration’s “lack of transparency.” Titled “Obama’s Promised ‘Change’ Lacks Transparency,” her statement said, in part, that Obama had broken a record set by his predecessor by allowing a 10-month gap between presidential press conferences before he held one on May 27. The previous one was July 22, 2009.

The AEJMC, a nonprofit, educational association of journalism and mass communication educators, students and media professionals, said that it “is alarmed by restrictions to presidential coverage that at best curtail and at worst prevent U.S. citizens from understanding the critical issues in which this administration is involved.”

“We urge President Obama and members of his administration to fulfill the commitment ‘to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government’ described in his memo,” the AEJMC president wrote. Obama’s memo is posted on http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/transparencyandopengovernment/

“Supporting a free, open and informed press with regular access to the president is the best way to support transparent governance in the best interest of a free and informed citizenry,” Pardun continued. See the full statement at http://aejmc.org/topics/2010/06/aejmc-obamas-promised-change-lacks-transparency/

While many AEJMC members disagreed with Pardun, others quibbled over whether encouraging its president to weigh in on issues that impact the profession included a right to issue statements without first consulting the body. A number of members asked: Where are the facts? They were more outraged about the fundamental lapse in scholarship than anything that was written about Obama’s relationship with the media.

Professor Jay Rosen, a media critic and professor of journalism at New York University, commented on the AEJMC blog:

“What bothers me about this statement is that it is so thinly reasoned and badly researched. We are an academic organization. Think about that. We believe in research. If we stand for anything, we stand for thinking it through, after gathering the facts and reviewing the literature. That’s what professors and graduate students are supposed to do. That is our niche. Forgive the expression but that is our brand. We’re the footnote people. The ‘what does the data say?’ crowd. The ‘know what you’re talking about’ (and show your work!) team. Surely every member of AEJMC understands this.”

Some in the Minority and Communications (MAC) division felt the Pardun’s statement had a ring of partisanship, and some even smelled racism. Perhaps there is a hint of racial insensitivity when you consider that the White House press corps is no representative sample of the United States. This small niche of journalists represents mostly large news organizations –leaving little room for small and more-diverse organizations– and often sidesteps questioning the president about issues of concern to African-Americans and other minorities.

It’s also clear that Obama’s concept of government transparency has less to do with daily statements at press conferences and more to do with how technology can give the average citizen access to the information and tools that will help govern their lives in a democratic society. Some of this transparency was apparent at a recent Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington, D.C., where companies were looking to do business with all levels of government. http://www.gov2expo.com/gov2expo2010

Conference exhibitors included such large companies as Google and Microsoft, as well as small ones, among them Code for America, whose stated goal is to use the brightest minds to create a more participatory and transparent government. An afternoon keynote session featured government officials from a variety of agencies who spoke with the passion of new media gurus about everything from using open data to improve America’s health to using social media as a strategic communications tool.

It’s too soon to tell what Obama’s transparency legacy will be. But the president’s transformative embrace of technology will likely impact local, regional, national and international governments for years to come. It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

Ingrid Sturgis is assistant professor of new media at Howard University and author of The Nubian Wedding Book: Words and Rituals to Celebrate African-American Weddings. She is conducting research about college newspapers online and is working on a compilation for Sourcesbooks called Are Traditional Media Dead? She is a member of AEJMC. Contact her at ingridsturgis@hotmail.com. If you would like to be a guest blogger for diversebooks.net, please email angela@diverseeducation.com