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Monday, October 14, 2013

CPJ Report: Obama Administration Has Had ‘Chilling Effect’ On Journalism

President Barack Obama answers questions during his news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 30, 2013. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Barack Obama answers questions during his news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 30, 2013. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

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.”


  • Leonard Downie, Jr., vice president-at-large of the Committee to Protect Journalists and former executive editor of the Washington Post. He tweets @lendownie.



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.

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  • Frog

    Chilling effect…How can this be? Since:

    “Time’s Stengel latest in long line of reporters who jumped to jobs in Obama administration”

    “In a trend that has raised some eyebrows among Obama’s critics, at least 20 reporters and editors from mainstream news organizations have taken high-profile positions in the administration within the past five years.”


    btw…I love that this story was in the Post “Style” section.


    B.S.! Ask Mr. Downie if he is a Republican and what type of Republican is he or what is his party affiliation. Second: Where was Downie during the Bush Chaney years?

    • fun bobby

      does it matter? If bush did something horrible is it then Ok for Obama to do it?


        What is the horrible part of the Obama administration? Answer: Fox Television propaganda lies that people like fun bobby believe in because they do not want a person of color in the White House, a place the the Capitol building that was built by black slave labor. The Koch brother/Ted Cruz/Sarah Palin race demonstrations at and near the White House clearly demonstrates where these people stand. Do you see any Republicans, including the Bush/Cheney bunch decrying these races demonstrations? Has Mr. Downei lambasted Ted Cruz/Sarah Palin/Michele Bachmann or Larry Klayman for creating lies including methods to subvert the government. Answer: Hell no! For your vague memory it was the Republicans who have shut down the government not some poor unpaid employee of the government and it is the Republicans who don’t want to pay the Nation’s debt that were already approved. Wars have been fought over trade and unpaid debts through out history. Mr. Bobby you need to spend some time in a library performing serious study on history. Fox Television research doesn’t cut it. Listing to a high school educated nut like glen Beck does not cut it either.

        • fun bobby

          the race card? really? The violations of our civil rights are indefensible so instead you play the race card for no apparent reason. brilliant! I don’t care what color the person is who is killing Americans without due process I will be offended by it. apparently you think it matters

          • RAOUL ORNELAS

            Same old jung yard response. Lets do it this way: How much money do you earn a year and what type of job do you hold – what part of the country do reside in and what is your part affiliation?

          • fun bobby

            what does Carl Jung have to do with this?
            do any of those things determine what is right and wrong?
            who I affiliate my part with is none of your business. is your position really that the NSA ought to be spying on everyone all the time? do you really think killing Americans without due process is acceptable?

          • RAOUL

            who said Carl Jung? Now that you have mentioned Mr. Jung’s name, let me provide you with a brief history of Jung’s earlier and ardent follower’s. He recruited mental patients who were hospitalized as mental institutions this is the reason they were so devoted to Mr. Jung. In short you Jung and idiot genius was guiding idiots… Kind of like the Tea Party bunch guiding the house of representatives.
            Now for the correction: A typing error occurred – it was meant to be: Same old junk yard dog responses. Now answer the questions: How much do you earn a year? What is your job? How many years did you serve in the military? What is your education level? What is your political party affiliation? How much time do you spend watching Fox T.V. a day? How many hours a day do you listen to Rush Limbaugh? And last, do you have a poster of either: Michele Bachmann or Sara Palin framed and hanging in your living room…. do you own a home or do you live in a trailer. Be honest know. If you answer correctly you may win a trip to visit Mitt Romney’s bank in the Cayman islands.

          • fun bobby

            are you currently in an institution?

          • RAOUL ORNELAS

            Answer the questions,

          • fun bobby

            but they seem so irrelevant and bizarre. this is a forum to discuss politics and the news not a dating site

          • RAOUL ORNELAS

            By default for not answering the questions, you have won the prize to the Cayman Islands Miitt Romney banking tour via the M/V Ship of Fools. Pick up your one way tickets at the Heritage Crank Tank Foundation office….. tell them Jim DeMint sent you. This my last response. Take care and stay of the sauce.

          • fun bobby

            you are clearly “of the sauce”. the Cayman islands are great I would love to go there again

  • B goldman

    Doesn’t this reporter work for the papers currently owned by the Koch brothers?

    • Justaguy

      Nice try. Jeff Bezos owns the Post.

  • dialyn

    Actually, considering how often the media makes errors in reporting, or twists a story to take on a meaning it didn’t have originally, I would find myself less willing to deal with journalists too if I was in that position. I don’t know if the media ever was a neutral reporter, but the bias shown in some markets is pretty blatant now.

  • CAB

    This guy is a corporatist shill, doing his master’s bidding.

    Where was he during the Cheney/Bush administration when we were being sold a bill of goods about the cause of 9/11? Who was verifying that “truth”—besides Judith Miller?

    Now that most journalists are in the employ of the multinationals, spending their time getting “scoops”—damn the accuracy—spinning & sputtering, trying to please those whose hems they kiss—they are best ignored. In the words of media clown Wolf Blitzer, “let’s leave it there….”—”it” being today’s psuedo-journalists/master false equivalizers, “there” being the dustbin of history.


    • fun bobby

      are you saying that the report above is not true or is blaming bush so important that we should ignore how Obama has created a repressive authoritarian regime?

  • it_disqus

    The responses posted here speak volumes about your program. The majority of your loyal listeners are so used to your left leaning coverage that any negative coverage of the current administration sends them into convulsions.

  • CAB

    No, it_disqus. That is not true. You are projecting.

    The mainstream media stopped being journalists during the fear-us years of the Bush/Cheney administration when truth obstruction was at its zenith. The media did not do its job then: It was scared. Now the fear-mongers are out of the White House, and the media has become a paper tiger—all swagger, no substance. It will poke needlessly at President Obama because he won’t shut them down like Cheney did. They feel brave.

    I believe they’re trying to make up for their years of cowering in the corner, wetting their pants, not doing their job.

    • it_disqus

      Did the stats about this President using a 1917 law 8 times that has only been used 3 three times in 90 years give you pause at all?

      • CAB

        No. Look into the context. Look into the reasoning. Get some background. Start thinking. This isn’t the black & white world of 2000 to 2008. Think critically.

    • fun bobby

      did you read the article?

  • fun bobby

    this is what I have been saying is the problem with living in a totalitarian police/surveillance state. the chilling effect affects more than just journalists. I have been reticent to take up canning as I do not really want to be seen purchasing the needed equipment by big brother. I know many people who refuse to fly because of the TSA. God bless this organization for writing this report

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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