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Great Expectations

From the Winter 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4. On the face of it, advocates…

From the Winter 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.

On the face of it, advocates of open government and press freedom have every reason to celebrate. The new president not only signaled he would make transparency a signature of his administration; he had barely settled into the Oval Office when he set about to do just that, signing his government up for a fresh approach to the Freedom of Information Act.

Sure enough, President Obama’s swift action to reverse the course of eight years of entrenched government secrecy was hailed by transparency advocates. They may have hoped, but couldn’t quite expect, to see openness get such top billing among the fray.

But if their cautious optimism was so quickly rewarded, the new administration’s first steps on other issues important to the news media raised more questions than supplied easy answers.

Would Obama allow photographers back in to Dover Air Force Base to document the return of flag-draped coffins?

Would his attorney general stand firm in support of a federal reporter’s shield law?

Would the president communicate expansively with the public — voluntarily posting volumes of government documents on the Web, carefully preserving administration e-mail, and regularly facing off with unfiltered reporters?

Or instead would Obama, in his advocacy of transparency through technology, make an end run around skeptical journalists?

As the legendary Helen Thomas wrote in a Jan. 28 column, “Secrecy goes with the White House turf.” Let neither the low bar Obama’s predecessor set, nor our initial burst of optimism, distract from our due wariness of a presidency yet to unfold.