Though President Barack Obama has said he created “the most transparent administration in history,” evidence contradicting that narrative has piled up. The administration has set a new record for rejecting open records requests, shrouded federal advisory committee meetings in unprecedented secrecy, ordered federal agencies to consult with the White House before releasing key documents and moved to prevent the government’s own investigators from accessing federal records they say they need to conduct impartial probes. This all comes at a time when, a new report shows, the federal government has ramped up spending on its own public relations apparatus.
The analysis from the nonpartisan group Open the Books says that since 2007, the federal government spent more than $4 billion on public relations. That includes contracts for outside PR firms and consultants, which have increased by 47 percent. It also includes salaries of the more than 3,000 public affairs officers now employed by federal agencies. Since 2007, the number of such officials has grown by 15 percent and the expenditure on PR salaries has increased by 22 percent, according to the report.
Those government employees are ostensibly employed to help constituents better understand government decisions by providing information to the public. However, two journalism watchdog groups, Society of Professional Journalists and MuckRock, say the government’s PR apparatus is increasingly deployed to impede the flow of information to news organizations.
“In recent years journalists have seen an increasing number of stall tactics being used and a lack of access to government employees and information,” wrote SPJ’s Lynn Walsh and MuckRock’s Michael Morisy. “These include agencies forcing reporters to go through [public information officers] to speak to any employee, which often silences staff on critical matters.”
To combat the problem, the two organizations are teaming up to try to systematically document the ways in which the government’s “public information” machine is being used to conceal information. They are asking journalists to file incident reports at their website whenever they have been “denied access to public officials and it impacted your reporting.”
“If we can track where this is happening,” the groups say, “we can push for change and more transparency.”