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A breath of fresh air

From the Winter 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. The breathtaking photograph of President Barack…

From the Winter 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

The breathtaking photograph of President Barack Obama speaking to the Inauguration Day crowd on the National Mall on the cover of this magazine reminds us that there are great expectations of this presidential administration.

If we are very lucky, maybe some of those expectations will be met.

For the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, those expectations fall primarily into the category of improved government transparency. In the Fall 2008 edition of The News Media & The Law, we chronicled the damage done to the public’s right to know by President George W. Bush and other government officials over the past eight years.

No presidential administration will ever be as transparent as journalists want it to be. Nevertheless, my first indication that the era of extreme federal government secrecy may be over came in December. As part of a group of open government advocates invited to talk to representatives of the Obama transition team, I breathlessly spilled out a FOIA fantasy:

“On his first day in office,” I urged, “President Obama will say to the world, ‘Transparency is important to democracy. I expect all government employees to enthusiastically comply with the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.’”

The transition team members, led by former Office of Management and Budget official Bruce McConnell, nodded their heads and smiled.

For the past eight years, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has reported that record requests have been denied, public meetings have been closed, court hearings and records have been sealed and millions of routine documents have been classified. And perhaps most disturbingly, those of us who have questioned these pro-secrecy policies have often been deemed unpatriotic and even pro-terrorist.

McConnell responded to the suggestion that the new attorney general repeal the notorious “Ashcroft Memorandum” within his first six months in office with, “I think we can do better than that.” I was a bit non-plussed.

The Obama team has been saying all the right things. Now it’s time for them to actually do something.

So far, the Pentagon has promised to review the ban on media coverage of the return of the nation’s dead soldiers to Dover Air Force Base. President Obama has ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to repeal the Ashcroft FOIA memorandum. Federal Reserve and Treasury Department officials have released some records documenting the use of “bailout” money going to the nation’s banks.

But as this issue of The News Media and the Law points out, there have been a few administration blunders so far. On his first full day in office (the same day he announced his transparency initiatives), the White House Press Office barred media photographers from documenting Chief Justice John Roberts re-administering the oath of office to the president. (Perhaps due to a case of nerves, the oath was jumbled the first time they did it during the official ceremony on Jan. 20.) And the new administration did not exercise the first opportunity it had to reverse the use of the state secrets privilege in response to a lawsuit involving the federal government.

Obama’s greatest opportunity to demonstrate that he believes citizens have a right to truthful, independently gathered information will be in the coming weeks when debate on the newly reintroduced federal shield law begins in earnest. Obama is on record supporting such a law. Attorney General Holder signaled his support for a law that protects confidential sources during his confirmation hearing.

A federal shield law finally has a realistic chance to make it through Congress and be signed by a president into law. It’s going to happen. And it’s going to take our breath away.