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There's been a lot said about the new administration's hostile stance towards the news media. President Trump has criticized entire networks and individual reporters by name, yet advocates for transparency in government say there's another more fundamental concern - public access to reliable information. NPR's David Folkenflik says the recent outcry over immigration provided a case study.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Earlier this week, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida - like Trump, a Republican - was surrounded by reporters in a Senate hallway. Rubio was speaking about confusion around the administration's new restrictive immigration order involving travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations.
MARCO RUBIO: We're seeking answers on a number of components of it. We're hearing from cruise lines and airports in our state, the tourism sector concerned with the visa waiver interview process. And there are not a lot of answers as of today.
FOLKENFLIK: Rubio added.
RUBIO: In fact, my staff was told the State Department as of today was ordered, you know, not to talk to Congress about this issue. So...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What? Why?
FOLKENFLIK: Rubio seemed to share the reporter's incredulity.
RUBIO: That cannot be a permanent position. I mean that...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you think...
RUBIO: We expect answers here fairly soon because we have constituents calling.
FOLKENFLIK: Constituents, the public, which needed information to function as travelers detained without disclosure of where - family members, loved ones, colleagues, even lawyers, left in the dark. A Democratic senator said a federal customs official hung up the phone on him.
Just to be clear, State Department Spokesman Mark Toner later said officials have been in touch with lawmakers. Left unsaid, the White House had shared little information with officials at State, Homeland Security and other agencies.
LUCY DALGLISH: I think we're going to be seeing some real out-of-the-box moves here.
FOLKENFLIK: Lucy Dalglish is dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
DALGISH: It'll be more along the lines of the president standing up at a rally somewhere and saying, who needs this information? This - it's the evil media that wants to know this information. You don't need it, no. And I think he's going to try to persuade the public overtly that they're better off ignorant.
FOLKENFLIK: Here was Trump speaking at a press conference a week and a half before his inauguration.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, OK? They're the only ones. But - no, I don't think so. I won. I mean I became president. No, I don't think they care at all. They - I don't think they care at all.
FOLKENFLIK: Early on, some government agencies were told to stop using social media channels. Others changed their web pages, even those conveying scientific information, as some of those tweets and posts were seen as jibes at the Trump White House, which has sought to cast doubt on a established climate science, for example.
Each presidential transition triggers a centralization of public relations messaging, but this development raised flags with some transparency advocates. Alex Howard is deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a group dedicated to the proposition that a country's government functions most honestly and most effectively when its citizens know precisely what's going on.
ALEX HOWARD: Well, the administration continues to be in what feels like campaign mode.
FOLKENFLIK: If you were to boil down Howard's concerns for the digital age, they might sound like this. Is data gathered by the government available to the public in a timely and easily accessible way? Is that data presented accurately? Is it protected from political interference? And here's a chilling one. Is that information actually gathered at all? For example, one bill proposed in the house would shut down gathering information on housing discrimination.
HOWARD: That kind of dumbing down of government information has the potential to take away our ability to create shared facts about what's changing in our society and to have an informed public debate about what should be done.
FOLKENFLIK: During this week's outcry over immigration, the delay in putting out the specific terms of the new policy led to mass confusion at airports around the world because no one was clear on the policies implications or even initially on its language. David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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