Members of the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly known as the National Conference of Editorial Writers) have been granted access to some of the nation’s top diplomats at the department’s headquarters in D.C. The relationship stretches back to the very founding of the NCEW in 1947.
For me, some of the most productive sessions have come from little-known State Department staffers toiling away on problems such as AIDS in Africa, property rights in the Third World, human rights in Burma or the unstable and harsh dictatorship in North Korea.
Listening to first-hand accounts of the successes and challenges in these areas and others makes for better editorials and ultimately a better-informed public, which in turn builds a stronger democracy.
Besides this, I’ve never left one of these annual briefings without feeling proud of my country. It’s a comfort to know a talented member of the U.S. State Department is working to ease the suffering in some remote corner of the world, both as a humanitarian mission and also because we know that isolated problems can and do boil over and threaten global security.
My wish is that there were similar briefings for editorialists at the Pentagon, the Treasury Department, the Justice Department and other federal agencies.
My term as president of the AOJ, which ended this month, was marked by some confusion at the State Department briefing in late April.
It began during our time with Secretary of State John Kerry, who declined an invitation to take questions from AOJ members after his opening remarks. That, as I pointed out in a follow-up letter, put him in rare and uncomfortable company. The only other public official in recent memory who declined to take questions from our members at a forum or conference was Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
AOJ’s preference (and experience across at least three presidential administrations) is that each State Department expert be on the record, meaning we identify the speaker and his or her title when citing what we learned.
In my experience, State Department officials have occasionally requested that something be off the record, though this was done rarely and only with the consent of the journalists in attendance.
Journalists value these rules, because attaching a name to information builds credibility with readers as well as keeping sources accountable. Human nature tells us that anonymity is a temptation for sources inclined to stretch the truth.
Back in 1947, records show a discussion among NCEW members about commencing a relationship with the State Department. Those initial contacts would be strictly on background, though an NCEW newsletter highlighted why such information must be judged carefully. “This material would be for background purposes only, not to be attributed to the Department in any way. Each NCEW member would have to evaluate it for himself as to the weight to be given it, the propaganda possibilities, etc.” (Emphasis mine.)
For the 2013 briefing, we were assured that on-the-record rules would be the case. On the morning of the briefing, however, officials informed the assembled journalists that several of the speakers would be talking on background and could not be identified by name or title.
It was, to put it succinctly, a disappointment.
Seems that condition is going around.
“Despite President Barack Obama’s repeated promise that his administration would be the most open and transparent in American history, reporters and government transparency advocates said they are disappointed by its performance in improving access to the information they need,” read a report released this month by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” David E. Sanger, Washington correspondent for The New York Times, told Leonard Downie, author of The Obama Administration and the Press: Leak investigations and surveillance in post-9/11 America.
The Obama administration’s sins, according to the report’s summary: “Journalists and transparency advocates say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press. Aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.”
The words of early 20th century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis prove themselves handy once again. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” he said. It’s a nearly perfect explanation for the necessity of a vigorous press. Sometimes a bright light needs to shine into the dark places, lest something nasty grow and fester there.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.