Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama won't let media do their job

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
May 15, 2013 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
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
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT