Obama administration transparency not assured by websites

Columbia Journal Review editor Megan Garber argues that while President Barack Obama’s early efforts to create a more open government are welcome, the nation must not be satisfied with mere improvement over the Bush administration. It remains to be seen if Obama’s failure to provide access to the press during the campaign will continue into his administration and damage the ability of the press to evaluate his administration. -DB

Columbia Journalism Review
Jan. 21, 2009
By Megan Garber

In 1835, a New York dairy farmer sent President Andrew Jackson an unusual gift: a wheel of cheese weighing nearly a ton. After letting the cheese age for two years—in, yes, the Entrance Hall of the White House—Jackson invited the entirety of the American public to come to the People’s House to eat and enjoy it. And on the appointed day, come many of them did: within two hours, all 1,400 pounds of cheese were gone.

The aged dairy was meant, in this case, to symbolize the synergy between collective ownership and participatory democracy—the notion that what transpires in the White House is and should be meant for public consumption. Sometimes literally.

Well. Yesterday, at 12:01 p.m. EST, Jackson’s latest successor placed before the American public his own wheel of cheese: a refurbished version of WhiteHouse.gov, the People’s House writ digital. Come in! it seems to say. Take a few bites! Chew things over! This is your White House, too!

The site’s, um, inaugural blog post—written by Macon Phillips, the White House’s Director of New Media—explains how “Change has come to WhiteHouse.gov” and highlights the three-pronged (and 2.0ed) goals of the revitalized site: Communication, Participation, and Transparency.:

President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history, and WhiteHouse.gov will play a major role in delivering on that promise. The President’s executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review, and that’s just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government. You can also learn about some of the senior leadership in the new administration and about the President’s policy priorities.

Reaction to the new site (‘new’ in relation to the Bush administration’s version of the site; much of the policy-focused content of Whitehouse.gov is carried over from Change.gov, Obama’s transition Web site) has been, generally, glowing. Particularly so among media critics and transparency advocates, each group having been chastened from eight years of Bush-Rovian secrecy.

The updated site “is expected to be the window for what is being touted as a bold experiment in interactive government based largely on lessons learned during the most successful Internet-driven election campaign in history,” Agence-France Presse put it. Today’s Washington Post quoted YouTube’s news and politics director, Steve Grove, similarly applauding the site: “By bringing the White House onto YouTube just moments after the inauguration, the Obama administration has demonstrated a commitment to a transparent government that connects directly with citizens,” he declared. PBS MediaShift’s Megan Taylor concluded, “It could portend unprecedented transparency in the American government.”

Such rosy-hued assessments of the day-old Web site often frame the current version of WhiteHouse.gov as a foil to—and, indeed, a rebuke of—what it was before 12:01 yesterday: a site run by an administration that (in)famously curtailed/thwarted/mocked transparency. The previous site’s occasional blog posts had a pulling-teeth quality to them, perfunctorily cheery in tone, and generally reading like press releases. If the Bush site’s goal was dialogue, then it was a one-way dialogue—not so much Arthur Miller’s vision of “a nation talking to itself” as Orwell’s vision of a nation speaking, unilaterally, for itself. The Bush Administration’s online White House had no space for public commentary, in every sense.

But comparison, taken too far, can also be misleading. Many of the media’s early assessments of the new WhiteHouse.gov framed their treatments according to some iteration of, wow, this site is so much better than it was before!. Which is somewhat akin to deeming a Quarter Pounder to be a good meal choice because, wow, it’s so much healthier than a Big Mac!. Relying on a Bushian metric for transparency doesn’t just set Obama’s bar too low; it sets the standard so low as to invalidate pretty much any bar in the first place.

We need, then, to redefine transparency for the digital age—or, better, to return to an older definition of what transparency means to our democracy. Being better than Bush when it comes to transparency isn’t good enough. Celebrations of Obama’s inauguration—and the Web site that came with it—as ushering in a New Age of Transparency are premature at best: as we’ve seen again and again, talking about transparency does not transparency make. And while there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful—including Obama’s signing, this afternoon, of two transparency-friendly executive orders—as Saul Hansell put it yesterday on The New York Times’s Bits blog, “Like so much else on this hopeful day, there is the lingering question about how many of the Web site’s lofty aspirations will survive the rough work of governing in a complex world and cynical capital.”

Indeed, WhiteHouse.gov’s many claims about the priority Obama will place on transparency are offset, somewhat, by a glaring absence on the site: its grand plan for renewed transparency doesn’t mention the press. At all. (We get only a tangential reference to the Office of the Press Secretary, listed with, among others, the Office of Presidential Personnel and the Office of Social Innovation—offices that, as yet, lack their own Web pages, or even explanations about what they are, on the Whitehouse.gov site. Several other offices, meanwhile, including the Council on Environmental Quality and the Civil Liberties Oversight Board, have customized pages.)

WhiteHouse.gov presents itself as a kind of social networking portal in which citizens can essentially “friend” the government—and it frames the ensuing dialogue as one that takes place directly between the people and the government. The press, it suggests by way of omission, need not be part of the exchange. One hopes—hey, one even dares to assume—that the conspicuous absence of the press from Obama’s transparency agenda is due to his conclusion that the democratic vitality of the Fourth Estate is so obvious as to render explanation or elucidation of that fact unnecessary.

And yet. It’s worth remembering that, though Team Obama’s facility with social networking and other forms of online organization are nothing short of legendary, their relationship with the press is much less exemplary in terms of that old, simple standby: access. During the campaign, reporters’ access to Obama was severely limited. On-the-record conversations with the candidate were even more so. Indeed, Obama’s overall treatment of the press—not just in his general rejection of the day-to-day news cycle, but also in his tendency to shun his national traveling press corps (remember when said press people were “hijacked” so Obama could meet in private with Hillary Clinton this summer?)—created the impression that its members were, to him, a buzzing nuisance. Instead of the voice of the people.

It remains to be seen how the man that many have dubbed the “YouTube President” will treat the various forms of information-dissemination that don’t fall under the convenient rubric of “direct democracy.” There’s a thin line, after all, between transparency and advocacy—and, for that matter, between information and propaganda. The goal can’t simply be transparency itself—how can we hold anyone accountable to something so self-referential—but rather transparency that is processed through a journosphere that is diligent, curious, and skeptical. Otherwise, “direct democracy” easily veers into “direct publicity.” And success must be measured not just in terms of words on a Web site, but also—and much, much more so—by the new administration’s treatment of the Fourth Estate. Will Obama regularly grant interviews to reporters? Will his Cabinet and other staff? Will he allow those conversations to take place on the record? Will he, in short, allow reporters to do their jobs and inform the American public?

We are at a pivotal point—in this country’s history, to be sure, but also in the role the media will play in that history. And our politics have certainly grown too complex for a Jacksonian block of direct democracy to be either entirely legitimate or entirely effective. As Jay Rosen pointed out in a Pressthink post yesterday, nothing is solid—or, really, sacred—when it comes to the relationship between the president and the press. That relationship is consistently in flux, and is often subject to the whims of the president himself in terms of how much—or how little—power the press will wield in the transaction. The Bush administration may have spent eight years attempting to delegitimize the people who would tell its tales; the only thing worse than abusing the press, however, is ignoring it altogether.