Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama won't let media do their job

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Wed May 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama told agency heads to make sure government is transparent
  • Ruben Navarrette says administration hasn't delivered on that goal
  • He says monitoring of the AP shows a disregard for the proper role of journalists

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- "Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. ... My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use." -- President Barack Obama, memo to heads of executive departments and agencies, 2009

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." --Thomas Jefferson to Lt. Col. Edward Carrington, Continental Army, 1787

Journalists are hardwired to be pro-transparency, pro-leaks and pro-whistleblower. They're not supposed to cozy up to the powerful; they're supposed to confront them. Their job isn't just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. And above all, the media have a sacred duty to act as a watchdog against the excesses of government.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

And if there is one thing that the Obama administration finds itself with an "excess" of at this point -- a little more than 100 days into its second term -- it's government excess.

This White House has been horrible at transparency. In 2010, in more than a third of the requests for public records, the Obama administration didn't provide any information. In fact, the administration has released fewer records under the Freedom of Information Act than were released during the George W. Bush administration.

And in the case of "Fast and Furious," where U.S. law enforcement agents allowed illegal guns into Mexico so they could track them -- and then lost track of them -- we're no closer to knowing the truth about who was responsible. Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt of Congress during a dispute over requested documents and President Obama went so far as to invoke executive privilege to keep from releasing those same documents.

The administration knows all about secrecy. Nonetheless, these days, you need a program to keep straight all the scandals of officials in the executive branch secretly doing things they're not supposed to be doing.

AP hits Justice Dept. over investigation
Abrams: That's not America at its best
Issa: Justice probe into AP 'disturbing'

The Justice Department is investigating the Internal Revenue Service for unfairly scrutinizing conservative groups thought to be aligned with the tea party. And so who will investigate the Justice Department for spying on The Associated Press? The IRS should do it. Just to keep things even.

Welcome to the Obama administration's chaotic version of the second-term curse, where the common theme is government officials, either with or without the blessings of higher-ups, abusing their power.

The Associated Press revealed this week that the Justice Department, in April and May 2012, used subpoenas to secretly help itself to two months' worth of phone records from journalists. Those targeted included at least five reporters, an editor and AP Washington bureau chief Sally Buzbee.

The Justice Department was interested in the conversations of anyone who worked on a May 7, 2012, story about the CIA thwarting a terrorist plot in Yemen. The administration wanted to know who was leaking information to the AP, so rather than monitor the phone lines of its own employees, it monitored the phone lines of the journalists who might be receiving that information.

According to the news agency, 20 different phone lines were tapped, including not just work phones and the AP's main switchboard, but also the journalists' home and cell phones. In all, according to the AP, when you count all the people who came in contact with the phones in question, more than 100 journalists could have been affected. Is it cold in here? I just felt a chill down my spine.

It is all part of the government's aggressive crackdown on leaks to the media. The Obama administration has prosecuted six leak-related cases. That's more than all previous administrations combined.

On Monday, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt fired off a letter to Holder condemning this "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into the agency's reporting.

Pruitt wants the Justice Department to return the phone records and destroy any copies.

That would the smart thing to do. I've known Pruitt for more than 20 years, since he was a young publisher of my hometown newspaper in central California, The Fresno Bee. He's a smart and tough newspaperman who originally came into this business as a media lawyer. He won't be intimidated, and he won't let this go. When the government counterpunches, Pruitt will hit back even harder.

The counterpunching has already begun. On Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole sent a letter to Pruitt defending the decision to grab the phone records. Cole insisted that the subpoenas were "drawn as narrowly as possible" and aimed at collecting "limited subject matter."

Not good enough, said Pruitt in a quick response. Saying that Cole's letter did not "adequately address our concerns," Pruitt questioned how such a sweeping investigation could be called "narrowly drawn."

My friend is right on the money, and he's right to raise a ruckus. A line has been crossed here. Every journalist in America ought to be outraged by the hubris of this administration, as should every American who believes -- along with Thomas Jefferson -- that the press has a solemn duty to inform the public as to what government is doing in its name.

And it's hard for the media to keep tabs on the government when the government is busy keeping tabs on the media.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT