While President Donald Trump’s war with the mainstream media continues to sizzle and pundits express outrage over his disdain for the press, they seem to have forgotten that President Barack Obama had his own, albeit far less public, battles that diminished press freedom in the United States.
Last week, The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration, in its final year, spent a record $36.2 million in legal costs defending its refusal to release files under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It was the second consecutive year that the Obama administration broke records for the number of times it told journalists and citizens that files could not be found after multiple searches. It also broke records for outright denying access to files.
The number of FOIA lawsuits—filed by The New York Times, Center for Public Integrity, The AP, and others—surged over the last four years, according to a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
In his first year in office, Obama effectively declared war on Fox News and other conservative news outlets. In 2009, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn stated that the White House would “treat [Fox News] the way we would treat an opponent.”
Sound familiar? Trump adviser Steve Bannon made headlines on Jan. 26, telling The New York Times that the “media here is the opposition party” and that it “should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” CNN and other news outlets reacted with indignation—presumably forgetting the last eight years.
Yet Obama never went so far as to exclude journalists from press briefings, as Trump has done. Last month, journalists from CNN, Politico, The LA Times, BuzzFeed, and The New York Times were blocked from a press gaggle with White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
However, the Obama administration did attempt to deny Fox’s inclusion in executive branch events in 2009, which met with opposition from other news outlets, including journalists from The New York Times and CNN. The attempt ultimately failed on account of these media outlets standing up to the administration.
On Jan. 21, 2009, one day after Obama took office, he claimed his administration would become “the most transparent administration in history.” Instead, it ended up setting a record for denying the most FOIA requests, according to The AP.
In meeting the lofty goal of being the “most transparent” presidency in history, experts—and not just from conservative media outlets—agree that he failed.
“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger in a 2013 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a press watchdog. The report noted that the Obama administration prosecuted more leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act—signed into law by Woodrow Wilson (who also signed into law the draconian Sedition Act of 1918 that effectively prohibited criticism of the U.S. government before it was repealed two years later)—than all other presidents combined.
Former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. wrote in a special report for CPJ that “the administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”
“Those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and email records,” Downie said in the CPJ report.
To elaborate, here’s a major difference between Obama’s eight years and Trump’s administration so far.
Obama’s “war” was waged covertly: In its last year, his administration issued censored files for or completely denied 77 percent of FOIA requests, according to the AP. The previous year was roughly the same.
Trump publicly admonishes the press, which seems to be part of a wider strategy to bolster his voter base, who generally despise, or at least are losing trust in, the media.
The AP has ample reason to gripe: Thousands of phone records from AP staffers were seized by the Obama administration’s Department of Justice in 2013. CEO Gary Pruitt commented that Obama acted as “judge, jury, and executioner” to obtain the records.
Obama also went after uncooperative journalist James Risen of The New York Times, trying for seven years to force Risen to reveal his confidential sources. The administration also digitally monitored Fox News reporter James Rosen’s private emails, accusing him of being a “co-conspirator” so that it could obtain a secret warrant to monitor him.
Trump has taken to Twitter to broadcast bombastic accusations and comments on national issues, celebrities, and the media’s treatment of him. Trump and his surrogates say his Twitter usage eliminates the mainstream media middlemen, getting his message directly out to the people.
In a now classic Trump tweet, he declared “fake news” purveyors as “enemies of the American people.” In response, journalists compared him to fascist dictators.
But let’s not pretend Obama never went that far. Earlier this year, Obama told NBC News anchor Lester Holt that Republican leaders, along with “folks like Rush Limbaugh” and Fox News commentators, had created a “hothouse of back-and-forth argument—and really sharp partisanship—[that] I think has been harmful to the country.” Not as direct as Trump, but the underlying us-versus-them message was the same.
According to the CPJ, Obama also subtly tried to shape the media’s narrative using social media when he entered the White House. “Instead of interacting with journalists, the new administration focused on populating its own websites and social media accounts with content—what appeared to be transparency was really controlling the message.”
This was apparent when Obama closed White House events to anyone except for the official photographer, who chronicled the former president’s administration on Instagram. Ironically, Obama was presented an award for “transparency” from a coalition of advocates—an event to which the press was not invited.
A number of mainstream outlets ignored the Obama administration’s chill on press freedom, while a few (like Downie, Risen, Rosen, and others) spoke out about it. Regardless, Obama continues to be described in glowing nostalgic terms.
With Trump’s verbal assaults, journalists are now emboldened to stand up against him, but many of them kept silent during the Obama years.
Perhaps the maxim “too little, too late” applies here.
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