Obama's supposed transparency again belied by hush-hush press conference rules at EPA

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Osha Gray Davidson's post on the Society of Environmental Journalists' listserv was at least one funny thing that could be written about the very unfunny way U.S. Environmental Protection Agency squelched open and honest communication with the public today:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of  openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
 

-- Senior administration official.

The quote, of course, is from President Obama, who issued the seemingly sweeping statement of support for government transparency shortly after taking office. As we've pointed out before, though, at least one agency is clearly failing to live up to this mandate: The U.S. EPA.

Today the agency, for the second time in three months, held a news conference on a major announcement and ordered reporters not to reveal the names of EPA officials addressing the public through the news media.

What is the meaning of this? Who are they afraid of?

The first incident happened when U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson held a news conference upon the release of the Obama administration's proposed annual budget in early February. Reporters who phoned in, their phones on mute so they could not object, were told that any EPA assistant administrators or others who spoke were "on background," meaning reporters were free to quote these officials, but not to identify them.Journalists were told if they stayed on the call or at the news conference they were agreeing to these rules. Is this what democracy looks like?

Today's story line varies only slightly. It involves the EPA's outlining its plans to regulate coal ash, a toxic byproduct of coal burning that caused a 1.1-billion-gallon spill into tributaries of the Tennessee River in December. Today journalists were told the following in a news advisory sent out, oh, maybe an hour or so before the briefing started:

Administrator Jackson may be quoted by name, on the record, for the entire press call.  In addition to the administrator, EPA officials will be on hand to answer press questions on background only.  If you use or publish answers from these officials, they may be quoted as senior EPA officials.

This kind of horse hockey has been par for the course at some agencies in D.C. for some time, such as the State Department and the White House. But EPA, from the time it was founded up in the early '70s until the administration of George W. Bush, remained quite open. Which is as it should be. We're talking about the air we all breathe and the water we all drink, after all.

Now, I should acknowledge that I do a lot of volunteer work for SEJ and one of those jobs is as the board of directors' liaison to SEJ's Freedom of Information Task Force. So maybe I'm more sensitive than some other journos.

But lots of plain old SEJ members -- and probably non-member journos -- also found this to be a bewildering turn of events, particularly coming from an agency like EPA that for so long, once upon a time, prided itself on openness.

And I can't imagine that most citizens think it's a good idea for high-ranking officials who were nominated by the president and confirmed by Congress to be able to hide behind a cloak of anonymity at a public press conference.

(To add insult to injury here, the EPA after the first press confererence posted a video of the entire session, for all to see. In other words, the agency revealed to the public information that it had previously ordered journalists not to reveal. After today's news conference, the agency issued a press release quoting by name one of the agency officials it had forbidden journalists to use in stories.)

Here's what I wrote to EPA Press Secretary Adora Andy just as the news conerence was getting  under way: 

Adora -- I'm Robert McClure with InvestigateWest in Seattle. We met at a clean-energy event here a few months ago. I also serve as the Society of Environmental Journalists Board of Directors liaison to SEJ's FOI Task Force. I understand that you are about to start a press conference on coal ash in which you are asking that everyone briefing journalists, except Administrator Jackson, be on background. Coal ash is a subject of great interest to SEJ members and their readers, viewers and listeners.  
 
SEJ's internal procedures require for me to consult with several others, not all of whom are available on short notice, to produce an official SEJ position. So I cannot object on behalf of SEJ. But I can tell you that I personally object, and that my discussions with the Task Force and SEJ President Christy George would lead me to believe that they, too, will object.
 
I urge you to allow the lower-ranking EPA officials to be quoted by name. Failing that, please ask Administrator Jackson to answer the questions herself. There is no need for this charade in a truly open and transparent government, which the Obama administration has said is its goal.
 
Robert McClure
InvestigateWest
 
I was right. SEJ followed up later today with a formal complaint about this matter of anonymous sources at press conferences meant to inform the public. I'll stop here for today. But if this keeps happening, I'll be keeping you informed.
 
-- Robert McClure