This story is the result of the first ever SOJ bus trip, organized by the Student Advisory Board, which brought students to Washington, D.C., where they toured The Washington Post, met with alumni at The National Press Club and visited The Newseum.
A group of Stony Brook University journalism students hopped on a bus to Washington, D.C. at 3 a.m. March 14 to find out how accessible President Barack Obama’s Administration is to the press.
Their first stop was the Washington Post headquarters, where they spoke with David Fallis, an investigative reporter, and Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor of the Post’s investigations unit. Although the Obama administration made early commitments to the press,promising to reverse the George W. Bush’s policy of withholding information, Fallis said the reality has been much different.
“I don’t think it’s really much better, and some things are a little worse,”Fallis said. “You can’t have a democracy without an open, accountable government.”
Beyond denying access to information or just ignoring requests, the administration has gone as far as counter-attacking reporters, falsely decrying articles as inaccurate and even threatening reporters with jail time, like Jim Risen of the New York Times.
Risen, a Pulitzer Prize Winner, refused to give the name of a source he quoted about a botched CIA operation to halt nuclear proliferation in Iran in his book “State of War.”
Leen added that the blame is not totally on the president, but also the large network of staffers under him.
“The Obama Administration is very closed off.” Leen said. “It is very hard to get information from them.”
The students then traveled to the National Press Club to meet with Stony Brook Alumni who are now professional journalists: Jonathan Salant ‘76, a political reporter for Bloomberg News, David Joachim ‘93, the weekend Washington editor of the New York Times, Lauren Cioffi, ‘11 of CBS This Morning, and Philomena Bubaris ‘13, an associate producer at Al Jazeera America.
“Every administration is more secret than the last one,” Joachim said. Therefore using the tools at your fingertips — databases and computers — to do the digging for a story is exceptionally important. He echoed Fallis when he said databases liberate the reporter.
Salant likened Obama’s frequent television appearances to Bill Clinton’s saxophone performance on Arsenio Hall’s 90s era TV show.
“It was radical that a president wouldn’t be on ‘Face the Nation,’” Salant said, “but would actually be on another station that had nothing to do with politics,” adding that people like Jimmy Fallon don’t ask important questions journalists do. The idea of journalism, he said, is to hold powerful people accountable. Comedians have no such responsibility.
Bubaris, a 2013 graduate of SBU’s School of Journalism, works with politicians on Capitol Hill.
“The difference between covering a regular person and the government is that the government wants media coverage — but only some of it,” she said.
She added that there is a fine line between digging for information and angering media relations officers who can cut off access to a politician completely. She stressed the importance of treating politicians like they are human.
The Obama administration has prosecuted more government leakers than any previous administration, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2013 report on the issue. The tactics use the Espionage Act of 1917 to justify investigations into journalists who allegedly had contact with sources who leaked classified information. The speculations have led them to target reporters from the Associated Press, Fox News and more. The president’s prosecutors also aggressively attack the whistleblowers themselves.
“Journalists and transparency advocates say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to avoid scrutiny by the press,” wrote Leonard Downie Jr., the author of the report.
Martha Joynt Kumar is a professor of political science at Towson University and author of several books regarding media relations with the White House.
“I think that, naturally, people are comparing the transparency of the Obama administration not necessarily with past administrations that provided [transparency], but rather with the promises set as a candidate,” Kumar said in a phone interview.
According to Tracy Westen of the Center for Governmental Studies Think Tank, when officials expose government secrets, they are called whistle blowers, like Edward Snowden. It forces some reporters to report to what he calls “black market transparency” and the journalists are persecuted.
“There’s got to be some balance,” he said in a phone interview. “We just don’t know what it is yet.”
Although it is difficult to compare Obama to his predecessors because of the integral role social media and other forms of technology play in politics, a number of journalists still believe his administration can improve its relationship with the president.
Story compiled by rewrite editor Kori Tuitt ’15 from material supplied by the following students: Jun Yong Ahn, Lindsay Andarakis, Siobhan Becker, Kristen Behr, Jasmine Blennau, Elsie Boskamp, Gregory Cannella, Alexa Coveney, Dina Elmonshed, Lauren Fetter, Kristy Gerlett, Dalhia Ibrahim, Chelsea Katz, Sarah Kirkup, Briceyda Landaverde, Eric Liang, Diana Lopez, Ahmad Malik, Krysten Massa, Cosette Nunez, Christine Powell, Michael Ruiz, Kevin Rutigliano, Eric Santiago, Kayla Shults, Patricia Soberano, Kevin Urgiles, Greg Wehner, Will Welch, Leah Winfield, Kelly Zegers