It was Mary Katherine Ham’s article that tipped me to the problem:
Barack Obama’s administration may be promising the “greatest ethical standard ever administered to an executive branch,” and increased transparency over his predecessor, but it seems to be forgoing at least one transparency practice that was routine in the Bush White House— transcripts of the daily press briefing.
It’s been four days since Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ first (and widely panned) appearance before the White House press corps, but no transcript, summary, or video of the event has shown up on WhiteHouse.gov. The delay could be forgiven in a less tech-savvy bunch, but given the Obama team’s considerable online skill, the omission of the the transcript is clearly intentional.
The decision to withhold transcripts is not a departure from the Obama Team’s online posture during the campaign, and signals that’s exactly the posture they intend to take for the next four years. Team Obama got a lot of credit for being an active online presence, which indeed it was, but that presence was built for message control, not openness. (My.BarackObama, the campaign’s social networking platform, is a different story, but it was cordoned off from the official campaign material, which was pretty tightly controlled.)
There are two concerns here: one practical, and one theoretical. The practical problem here is that full and prompt official documentation of press conferences and statements is a very useful tool for the people who use them to write news and/or analysis pieces. Having a transcript – or, better, a video – of precisely what was said (and not said) can make the difference between a flap and a scandal… and if you don’t think that this is that big a deal, imagine how much fun The Usual Suspects could have had if they were able to claim that the Bush administration came out in favor of eating puppies and nobody was able to readily check. Well, right now nobody can check. Shoot, right now it’d take people a while to get the information together to confirm or deny MK’s observation that Gibbs did badly in his first press conference. Under Bush, we’d just link and let people make up their own minds.
And that’s the second problem right there. The besetting irritation of the Bush administration is that it never felt the need to defend itself; the besetting irritation of the Obama administration is increasingly looking like it considers doing anything else a secondary priority. There’s a fundamental mistrust of information dissemination encoded into the White House site these days, and while I certainly don’t mind them making it harder for Democratic partisans to come up with independent defenses of the Obama administration, I suspect that the partisans themselves fairly soon will.
Whether pragmatic expedience will win out over a fundamental insecurity in order to provide more transparency here is another question altogether, of course.
Crossposted on Moe Lane.