President Barack Obama has promised to run a transparent government, and while media advocacy groups are hailing some early moves, journalists on the White House beat say they are getting mixed signals.
White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki asks for patience but says the marching orders are clear.
"We want to make information available to the press and, of course, to the public," Psaki says, promising transcripts and information about meetings, "what our focuses are on a day-to-day basis and what we're doing to help govern."
Unlike Any Previous Presidency
They'll be communicating directly, too. There is a new YouTube channel for Obama's video addresses and the administration has named a White House blogger, and Psaki says there will be a new Web site.
"We are going to be launching a Web site where people can search by their home area, by their state, for projects," she says, "and see how we're investing in their communities and how we're using the money in the stimulus package."
Bill Nichols, managing editor of the online and print publication Politico, says that Obama's administration will be radically different from any previous presidency in its ability to communicate directly with the public. He says the new White House deserves time to figure out its communication strategy, but he cautions the administration that the press still plays a needed role in helping the public understand government policy.
"I just also want to be sure the president and the people who work for him are being subject to people who are trained as journalists and who are asking the questions that perhaps some of the people watching things from out there in the country are not able to ask," Nichols says.
Flap Over Access To Oath Do-Over
That has been a sore spot. When Obama was administered the oath of office a second time by Chief Justice John Roberts, it was behind closed doors. Only a few reporters were whisked inside, and no photographers or cameramen were allowed. Officials released photos taken by the White House staff photographer, but the three big wire services refused to distribute them.
Veteran CBS White House reporter Bill Plante says news outlets needed to draw the line.
"Do you originate the material, or do you function as a transmission belt for handouts from the government?" he asks. "The whole idea of an independent press as guaranteed by the First Amendment is that it would serve as a watchdog and check on the power of government."
When Obama dropped by the press room to schmooze last Thursday, he brushed off a Politico reporter who asked about a controversial nominee. Later, White house spokesman Robert Gibbs found himself defending the decision not to allow reporters to identify senior administration officials who had spoken to them, though, as The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman pointed out, Gibbs had used the first name of one of those senior officials several times in the press briefing.
Google Model Of Openness
Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is giving the Obama camp the benefit of the doubt. During the transition, she asked Obama's aides to have him pledge publicly to run the most open White House in history and to reverse Bush-era policies that led federal agencies to block the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
"I was floored. In his first full day in office, that's precisely what he did," Dalglish says. "So we were walking around with pretty big grins on our faces."
She says there's a difference between the famously disciplined way the Obama campaign kept to its message and the controlling way the George W. Bush White House sought to limit the flow of information to the public.
There may be a culture clash here.
Taken at its word, the Obama administration would appear to be following a Google model of openness: making information and communication available to anyone through a few keystrokes. In a conventional model of news gathering, journalists are supposed to be watchdogs and surrogates for the public, trained to see patterns in data and ask informed questions. (Some critics of the White House press corps during the George W. Bush terms would argue there's more bark than bite.)
Psaki, the Obama spokeswoman, says the president understands that model, too, even when he is schmoozing.
"This is not his first trip to the rodeo," she says. "He spent two years on the campaign trail. It's not unexpected to him that members of the media are going to ask questions when he's around."
On Monday, media pools following Obama included photographers and cameramen. Journalists on the beat say they will watch for other moves toward openness, as well.