The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) is the leading professional organization for journalism professors in North America. ??I’ve been a member, off and on, for 20 years. On June 7, 2010, it issued the statement below, criticizing President Obama for failing to make good on his promise of government transparency. ??I had a lot of problems with this statement, and I posted them as a comment at the AEJMC site. Here, I have reproduced the original AEJMC statement, and appended my commentary after.
??AEJMC: Obama???s Promised ???Change??? Lacks Transparency
In late May, President Barack Obama took the podium in front of the White House press corps in his first full, open-ended news conference in 10 months, a gap that exceeds the record set by his predecessor.
Obama???s lack of presidential press conferences and his general lack of transparency and accessibility to journalists during his administration are in sharp contrast to the platform on which he ran for president in 2008. During that campaign, Obama pledged a new era of openness.
Even the most logical of venues for answering questions from the press seem to be off-limits. In mid-May after he signed the Daniel Pearl Freedom of Press Act-a new law requiring the State Department to identify governments that restrict press freedoms-he refused to answer questions from reporters. ???I???m not doing a press conference today,??? he announced, according to a Reuters news story. And when he does allow reporters??? questions, attempts are made to control the proceeding. Last year the Wall Street Journal criticized the administration???s pre-screening of reporters who would be allowed to ask questions of the president.
The AEJMC is alarmed by restrictions to presidential coverage that at best curtail and at worst prevent U.S. citizens from understanding the critical issues in which this administration is involved. We urge President Obama and members of his administration to fulfill the commitment ???to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government??? described in his memo posted on whitehouse.gov. Supporting a free, open and informed press with regular access to the president is the best way to support transparent governance in the best interest of a free and informed citizenry.
This statement was issued by the President of AEJMC and through the??President???s Advisory Council.
The??Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication??is a nonprofit, educational association of journalism and mass communication educators, students and media professionals. The Association???s mission is to advance education, foster scholarly research, cultivate better professional practice and promote the free flow of communication.
[A bit of context: Several of the comments at the AEJMC site objected to the very attempt to speak on behalf of the association’s membership. “You do not and should not speak for me,” wrote??Melinda Robins. Here is what I wrote…]
My problem with this statement is a little different. ??I am not disturbed that the AEJMC President???s Advisory Council has taken a stand without consulting the entire membership. Nor does it outrage me that it has expressed a view that might be different from mine. I think it’s good that a professional association takes stands. ??Those stands are never going to please all parts of the membership, but tolerating that kind of discord is better than having a toothless association.
What bothers me about this statement is that it is so thinly reasoned and badly researched. We are an academic organization. Think about that. ??We believe in research. If we stand for anything, we stand for thinking it through, after gathering the facts and reviewing the literature. That’s what professors and graduate students are supposed to do. That is our niche. Forgive the expression, but that is our brand. We’re the footnote people. The what does the data say? crowd. The “know what you’re talking about” (and show your work!) team. Surely every member of AEJMC understands this.
Now let’s look at this statement: Obama???s Promised ???Change??? Lacks Transparency. It says that Obama’s transparency agenda is a failure, that he is not accessible to journalists, and his claims for a new era of openness have not been met. Now, remembering that research is our strength, our brand, consider this: what is the evidence provided for Obama’s failure? ??As I read the statement, a single piece of evidence is provided: Obama has not had very many presidential press conferences. ??That is all.
Is this fact enough of a basis for the conclusions the fact is supposed to support? Can it bear the weight the AEJMC has placed on it? ??I say it cannot. In fact, it is not even close to adequate.
Where are the figures totaling up the number of press conferences and comparing it to other administrations? Missing. Where is the data for the number of one-on-one interviews with journalists Obama has given, and the comparison to other presidents? Missing. Where is the consideration of the administration’s argument that these interviews count as “openness” and “access” too? There is no consideration of that argument. It’s like we didn’t know of it.
Where is the recognition that “transparency” is an agenda that reaches far beyond the president’s relationship with journalists to take in such factors as whitehouse.gov and the whole “open data” movement? ??Shockingly, it is absent. It’s like we are ignorant of what transparency means. Where is the attempt to assess whether, apart from the number of press conferences, the Obama White House has been successful in making the government more transparent and putting its vast collections of data online? Missing.
Where is the critical evaluation of such pivotal figures as Vivek Kundra, the new federal chief information officer, who has made transparency his cause? ??Is he a failure because Obama hasn’t had very many press conferences? Absurdly, the statement ??is silent on that.
Where is the sophistication? Nowhere seen. Where is the deep background knowledge for which we academics are (I hope, I hope…) still known? ??Where is the multi-variate analysis? I don’t see a single sign in this statement that we–the AEJMC–know who we are supposed to be here.
Listen up, President???s Advisory Council: You don’t go making big statements about presidential openness and press conference behavior without checking in with Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University, who has been keeping track of that bit of institutional history more carefully than anyone else. You don’t make judgments off the top of your head. ??You collect the data. You think it through. You look at the big picture and the specific facts. You consult the scholars who know.
This AEJMC statement is crude– gross even. It is thinly sourced and badly reasoned. It is as narcissistic as the White House press corps at its worst. ??The statement doesn’t know what it’s talking about. ??Hitting Obama for not being transparent enough is an important thing to do, and a valid thing to do, necessary in the extreme…. if he is not being transparent enough. But the only way to make it stick is to be who we are in AEJMC. The people who know what they’re talking about, who have the data, who see the full institutional picture, who speak with authority.
This statement does not come close to meeting that standard. It is not professional quality work.
Jay Rosen, PhD
New York University, Dept. Chair, 1999-2005