While President Barack Obama finishes his second and final term as president of the United States, President-elect Donald Trump waits in the wings.
A change in administration is an ideal time for both men to commit to being more open and transparent with the news media during their respective administrations. It is also time for the press to reassess its role as it recommits to better serve the American people.
Eight years ago, then-President-elect Obama said his administration would be the most transparent in history. This was — and still is — a worthwhile goal. Actions, however, speak louder than words, and the Obama administration’s record on transparency is far from praiseworthy.
In March, the Associated Press noted, “People who asked for records under the law (Freedom of Information Act) received censored files or nothing in 77 percent of requests,” which is a record for unfulfilled requests.
In addition to this lack of transparency, the Obama administration’s Justice Department has shaken the foundations of the freedom of the press, targeting a Fox News reporter as a “co-conspirator” in a spying case and secretly seizing the phone records of AP journalists, a move AP president and chief executive Gary Pruitt called “a massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering activities and “[a] serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report news.”
To the extent possible, Obama should seek in the waning days of his administration to rectify these lapses and ameliorate the attacks on reporters that have occurred on his watch. With regard to the transparency issues, he would do well to ensure that reasonable records requests are quickly and diligently fulfilled before Trump takes office.
It is no secret that Obama’s successor has a somewhat strained relationship with the press. While he has a long rapport with many media personalities, during his campaign he nonetheless threatened to open up libel laws and sue any media outlets that write “purposely negative and horrible and false articles.” More recently, Trump has decided against traveling with the press pool that typically goes with the president-elect to report on actions, a move the White House Correspondents Association called “a serious breach of historical precedent and First Amendment responsibilities.”
It is important that Trump remember that freedom of the press is an important bedrock of the United States Constitution and an active and vigorous free press is vital to the American people as they seek to follow the actions of their commander-in-chief. President-elect Trump should change course and commit that his administration will seek a more transparent administration that is subject to press scrutiny.
The news media should, in turn, seek to regain the trust of the American people. A recent Gallup poll shows that only 32 percent of the American people expressed confidence that the media “report the news fully, accurately and fairly.” This is the lowest level in Gallup’s history, and is also down 8 percentage points from last year. Indeed, only 14 percent of Republicans surveyed say they trust the media, which is down from 32 percent a year ago.
To regain the trust of the American people, straight news reporters must put their political leanings aside when reporting and writing articles and seek to ensure that their reporting is fair and accurate. Where there are relevant political affiliations or affinities, they should appear as opinion or otherwise be disclosed.
The New York Times’ editor, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., recently wrote to the Times readers that its reporters will “report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences … (and) bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.” To be sure, the New York Times has a long way to go to live up to such a lofty ideal, however, media outlets — the Deseret News included — would be wise to strive to live up to such a commitment.
In the end, when presidential administrations and the news media are transparent and honest, the American people win, and that should be the goal for the incoming administration and the media outlets that cover him.