No Noose Is Good News

Suddenly, there are stirrings in the Washington press corps. It's not a revolution, but it is a start, for these are healthy stirrings of resistance to an autocratic, truth-hostile American presidency. If the founding fathers were right in believing that an unfettered press would be crucial as the provider of honest information so that the electorate could make informed decisions, then today's public can only hope that this newborn resistance two centuries later will take root and grow. The struggle will not be easy.

On the plus side, increasing numbers of Americans—Republicans as well as Democrats, judging from opinion polls and other signposts—are coming to realize that the administration of George W. Bush, albeit with his smile and aw-shucks, down-home demeanor, has constructed an imperial and extremist presidency this country has not seen the likes of before. Secrecy and disinformation rule, all of it crafted to push through an ideological agenda. Average voters, for example, now understand that this White House, on a regular basis, lies to the citizenry—as it did to rush the country into the Iraq war with neither an honest premise nor proper planning or preparation.

On the minus side, the press has not convinced a large enough chunk of the public either that something urgent has to be done or that the press's informational role in their lives is crucial to a working democracy.

The press initiative in Washington touches on only a small piece of a much larger, insidious system of keeping important information from the public through underhanded devices, such as classifying as "secret" government reports and data that have nothing to do with national security or issues of homeland safety. In this latest protest, a half-dozen or so White House correspondents—including those for The New York Times, the Associated Press, Knight Ridder, USA Today, the LosAngeles Times, ABC News, and the Cox Newspapers—have formally petitioned the White House to open up all "background" briefings by making them on the record and agreeing that the briefers can be identified.

The press agitation began to take form in mid March, when a symposium was held at the National Press Club to vent frustrations over the Bush stonewalling and to consider ways to overcome it. The idea of opening up government briefings was a central part of the discussion; Ron Hutcheson, Knight Ridder's White House reporter and president of the White House Correspondents' Association, was the pivotal advocate. The Washington Post said it would not join in any "unified" press action. Others showed interest in the idea, whether collective or not.

The Village Voice described these beginnings a few issues ago ("A Time for Disobedience," Press Clips, April 20-26). Shortly thereafter, the group of reporters and bureau chiefs went to the White House to press their case with Scott McClellan, the president's press secretary. He said he would consider the idea, and the press attendees said they thought progress had been made. But when Editor & Publisher's Joe Strupp interviewed McClellan some days later, the press secretary hardened his position, saying there would be no agreement on opening up briefings until the press collectively agreed to stop using "anonymous sources"—a total rebuff. Apparently, McClellan's belief is that unnamed, confidential sources are used only in stories that criticize the Bush administration, which is patently ludicrous.

Later still, McClellan e-mailed Editor & Publisher to say his negative remarks to Strupp had been misunderstood. We shall see.

I've only spent one summer reporting in Washington. So when I need to do research on the way things work there, I call my friend Bill Kovach, who has been standing up and speaking out on press ethics and standards his entire life. He's an icon in the newspaper world. Also, in his distinguished career, he spent eight years as Washington bureau chief of the Times.

Kovach laughs sourly as he discusses the perversity of making government press briefings off the record. For example, he points out, the Washington correspondents of nations that are considered adversaries or rivals of the United States are not inhibited by these restrictions. Even when they are not accredited for certain briefings, these foreign reporters—now as well as during the Cold War—have cultivated friends in the press corps who will give them a fill-in afterward, over lunch or by phone. Such foreign reporters frequently double as information gatherers for their countries' intelligence services. So spy agencies in Moscow, Beijing, and elsewhere quickly learn the details of the briefings and the names of the Washington officials who presided.

"The only people deprived of this information," said Kovach, "are the American public. How ridiculous is that?"

When he was named Times Washington chief, Kovach quickly mounted an effort to crack open all government briefings, telling his reporters to walk out if the briefings were kept off the record. They did so, but were thwarted when their colleagues from other news organizations stayed in their seats and refused to fill in the Times reporters afterward. Kovach appealed to the other organizations' editors for support, in particular the hometown Washington Post, but they declined and the initiative failed within a month.

"That's the world of Washington," Kovach said. "The Beltway puts a noose around information that doesn't have to have a noose on it." Very often, he said, the administration classifies a report or document because its contents reflect badly on a foreign official or a government or a member of Congress, and so they keep it hidden to be used later, as leverage in some situation where the White House or the CIA or the Pentagon wants a particular outcome. It's that old truism: "Information is power." It hasn't stopped being true.

About the Washington press stirrings, the issue of off-the-record briefings may be but the tip of the iceberg. Yet it's a beginning that needs wide support, especially that of individual journalists, some of whom pretend they're merely powerless tools who are compelled to respond to their editors' demands for more transparency in government. Poor things, hiding behind aprons.

"Every reporter has an obligation to the public," Kovach said. "He or she has a professional obligation to inform them." Is there a serious reporter anywhere who can argue with that?

If we wish to regard ourselves as professionals, then the only response we need to give when we press for transparency is, "That's my job."

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