Gerber: Obama's trickle-down effects

Our government has never been more secretive than it is today.

It has become routine for public officials to dodge requests for public records or to drag out the process for weeks or months, to make decisions without the "burden" of public scrutiny, as if every decision deserves the secrecy of D-Day invasion plans, or to just flatly ignore questions from reporters on critical issues that citizens have a right to know about.

Chuck Fleischmann, I'm talking to you. But you're not the only one.

It appears that, ironically, Fleischmann, who represents the Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District, and other politicians here and across the country have learned a lot from President Barack Obama. They've learned to avoid questions, how to clamp down on public information and keep the public in the dark.

This is Obama's trickle-down legacy.

"The White House push to limit access and reduce transparency has essentially served as a secrecy road map for all kinds of organizations. From local and state governments to universities and even sporting events, it's becoming increasingly difficult for journalists to do their job," Brian Carovillano, Associated Press managing editor for U.S. news, told hundreds of journalists gathered in Chicago last week for a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors and the Associated Press Photo Managers.

Journalists who cover the president agree that the Obama administration has restricted information and access in a way not before seen.

"Their marching orders are to squelch anything that could make the administration look bad," said Sally Buzbee, the AP's Washington bureau chief.

Yes, this is the same Obama who promised to preside over the most transparent administration ever. Yet his administration comes down hard on staff members who cooperate with journalists. The AP reporter covering federal transportation issues has been told by government employees that they will be fired if they're caught talking to her, Buzbee said.

But we don't have to go all the way to Washington to see government officials act like this. Plenty of local agencies deploy bullying tactics when they're asked to answer basic questions or provide public information, whether it's by members of the media or local residents.

Take EPB, Chattanooga's public utility.

Just last week, EPB cited the findings of an audit by the Mauldin & Jenkins firm to examine under- and overbilling of the city by the utility. EPB officials say the audit shows the billings come out as a wash, no harm no foul, and they've given some parts of the audit to the city's auditor.

Journalists, naturally, have asked for copies of the audit, but EPB refuses to release it, saying it's not complete. So let's get this straight. It's complete enough for EPB to cite in defense of itself but not complete enough to release to the public? Please.

As for Fleischmann, his people returned reporters' calls when he was in a tight primary race. Now that he's expected to win the general election, he has returned only one phone call. Actually, he didn't even return it himself; a spokesman did.

A Times Free Press reporter made this observation of Fleischmann: "He'll be underground until two years from now when he has another election."

Why does it matter that elected officials answer our questions, that we have access to public information? Because we have the right to know what our government is doing. And as members of the press, our goal every day is to report the public's business and how taxpayer money is being spent. We cannot accurately and independently do that if we rely solely on elected officials and government agencies to decide what information we receive. That amounts to propaganda.

The good news for the public is that most editors are alarmed by efforts to step up government secrecy, which will only result in our own stepped-up efforts. The Times Free Press, like papers across the country, will stick to our mission to hold public officials accountable. We won't kowtow to them or their attempts at intimidation. We won't give up our role as watchdogs.

Newspapers should respond to secrecy by accelerating investigative reporting, said James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who faces jail time for doing his job. He refuses to name his sources or testify in the trial of a former CIA officer accused by the Obama administration of leaking classified information.

"Are we pushing back against government secrecy?" Risen asked. "And if we're not, then they'll keep doing what they're doing to us."

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at