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For the first time in its 32 year history, the Committee to Protect Journalists, whose mission is defending journalists worldwide, has released a comprehensive examination of press freedoms in the United States.
The report says that President Obama is not making good on his promise to have a transparent government and the aggressive pursuit of leakers of classified information is having a chilling effect on journalists.
“Most journalists are not concerned about what might happen to them,” Leonard Downie, Jr., vice president-at-large of CPJ, who wrote the report, told Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson. “But they are very concerned about their sources’ fears. In several of these investigations the communications — the emails and the phone call logs between journalists and their sources in government — were seized and used against the government sources.”
In a statement to Politico, the Obama administration spokesman said the administration has provided “unprecedented openness in government.”
Downie says this is disingenuous, and reporters only get the administration’s side of a story.
“The problem is what they are making transparent are helpful to the image of the administration,” Downie said. “In some cases, it’s providing information about things journalists are barred from, so that you only get the government’s view.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW. For the first time in its 32-year history, the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, whose mission is defending journalists worldwide, has released a comprehensive examination of press freedoms in the United States. The report says that President Obama is not making good on his promise to have a transparent government and is having a chilling effect on journalists.
Joining us to talk about the report is one of the authors, Leonard Downie, vice president-at-large and former executive editor of the Washington Post. Leonard, welcome.
LEONARD DOWNIE, JR.: Good morning, thank you.
HOBSON: Well, so you have said, and you have personally covered Washington for many years, you've said this is the most aggressive administration you've seen since covering the Nixon administration during the Watergate investigation. Explain.
DOWNIE: Well, in terms of its war on leaks, that is to say the numbers of leaks investigations it's been conducting, prosecutions, they've prosecuted eight different government officials and government contractors so far under an - a 1917 Espionage Act, which is normally for spying for foreign enemies, and it had only ever been used three times in prosecutions in the last 90 years; in addition to having government officials who are suspected of leaking information to the press, having to take lie detector tests, being ordered to shunt reporters off only to public affairs officers. It has made it very, very difficult for reporters in Washington to hold this government accountable for its actions the way it should be.
HOBSON: And obviously there is a - there has been an effect on potential whistleblowers, but on journalists, are journalists more fearful about going after information as a result of these prosecutions?
DOWNIE: Most journalists are not concerned about what might happen to them, but they are very concerned, because they feel responsible, they are very concerned about their sources' fears because in several of these investigations, the communications, the emails and phone call logs between journalists and their sources in government were seized and used against the government sources.
As a result, journalists told me almost unanimously, in dozens of interviews, that their sources are increasingly afraid to use the telephone or email to discuss anything with them and in many cases are clamming up period, and the journalists don't want to get people into trouble.
HOBSON: And the White House has responded to your report to Politico, saying from the day he took office, the president committed his administration to work toward unprecedented openness in government. They point to the fact that they're releasing all kinds of information online. They're making a lot of things public even if they're not doing it at the request of journalists.
DOWNIE: I've included that in the report. Their responses are in there. I interviewed Jay Carney, the president's press secretary, and others in the White House. And I included all that information in the report. The problem is that what they're making transparent is by and large things that are helpful to the image of the administration.
We're talking about government websites and a lot of stuff that they put on social media that puts the government in a good light and in some cases is actually providing information about things that journalists are barred from. So you only get the government's view of a meeting at the White House, not what journalists might have concluded by doing the reporting about that.
HOBSON: Let's talk about the issue of over-classification, which you do bring up, and the idea that especially since 9/11, a lot of things have been classified for security reasons, and when I say a lot, we're talking millions of documents, right?
DOWNIE: Yes, millions and millions. Everybody agrees, and the president himself has agreed, that there's too much of the - of government's information, which is to say the people's information, is classified as secret. Something should be done about that. The president promised on his first days in office to do something about over-classification, to make it easier for reporters and the public to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain government information. There have been lots of recommendations made to the White House, but very little has been done.
HOBSON: Well, Leonard Downie, what can be done, and what should be done?
DOWNIE: Well, first of all the two things I just said, for the president to make good on his promises to reduce over-classification and to make the Freedom of Information Act much more responsive to the public and to the press but most importantly is to empower government officials to discuss the people's business with the press.
HOBSON: And do you think that that will happen in the remainder of the Obama administration?
DOWNIE: Well, I would hope that by bringing attention to the president's own promises to have the most transparent administration in history and the evidence that that's not the case would move him during the two-plus years he has in office to make that part of his legacy. There's no Republican opposition to this. There should be no - nothing standing in the way of the president deciding to act in this area.
HOBSON: Leonard Downie, Jr., vice president-at-large and former executive editor of the Washington Post and author of a report about the restrictiveness of the Obama administration when it comes to the press. Leonard Downie, thank you so much.
DOWNIE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.