Promise of an open administration remains unfulfilled

Posted Saturday, Jun. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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witt President Barack Obama has been under withering attack for a trifecta of scandals that have happened under his watch: the IRS targeting conservative political groups applying for tax-exempt status; the Department of Justice seizing phone records of Associated Press reporters to try and find where classified leaks were coming from; and the ongoing saga of what happened in Benghazi.

The only good thing about the situation is the fodder it provides comedians on late-night TV. Here are the best lines I’ve heard:

“Republicans are starting to bring up the word ‘impeachment,’ but Obama knows he can kill that sentiment with two words: President Biden.” — Dave Letterman

“Fox had changed their slogan from ‘Fair and Balanced’ to ‘See, we told you so!’” — Jay Leno

“Obama is truly a new kind of Democrat. Here he is involved in three scandals at the same time, and not one of them involves sex!” — Jay Leno

“Obama’s popularity in the past few weeks has climbed to 53 percent. The other 47 percent are getting audited.” — Conan O’Brien

My job as executive editor of the paper is to direct coverage of the news, not have an opinion about it. Like a judge, my job is to try and make sure the trial is fair.

So I don’t have an opinion about the IRS shenanigans or the Benghazi debacle other than to say they are both subjects our audience is intensely interested in and we want to make sure the Star-Telegram is doing our best with the resources we have to inform our readers.

We’re primarily a local newspaper, so we have to rely on the wire services we subscribe to in order to provide information on those national and international subjects. But as a member of the media, I do have intense interest and an opinion about one of the ongoing scandals — the seizure of the AP’s phone records.

I believe that one of the reasons democracy works in America is because we’re a society that allows criticism of our government. To effectively do that, people need to know how our leaders are conducting business. Sometimes, it’s necessary to disseminate information obtained from confidential sources.

The revelations about Watergate, for instance, would probably never have come to light without the ability of the media to rely on confidential sources — people with knowledge about what happened but who wouldn’t talk if their identities were revealed, possibly exposing them to retaliation.

In his first presidential campaign, Obama said his government would be the most open and transparent in history. It has been just the opposite.

The Justice Department has prosecuted more government leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all other prior administrations combined (a total of six). Millions of documents have been classified. The ability of the media to act as a watchdog over the government is in jeopardy like never before — even the Nixon administration wasn’t this obsessed with leaks.

That’s why I support the federal Free Flow of Information Act of 2013 ( House of Representatives Bill 1962 and Senate Bill 987), which would defend the public’s right to know by protecting the identities of confidential sources in certain instances.

Under the current system, the Department of Justice gets to unilaterally decide whether a subpoena is too sweeping. This shield law would involve an impartial judge in the proceedings to make sure it’s not a fishing expedition for information that is irrelevant to the investigation.

The bill is strongly supported by both Republicans and Democrats and conservative-leaning media organizations like Fox News and liberal ones like MSNBC. A USA Today poll showed support from the public on the issue is overwhelmingly in favor of these new protections. If you agree, please let your representatives in Congress know.

Jim Witt is executive editor of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7704 Twitter: @jimelvis

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