One of the most talked-about things during President Barack Obama's campaign was his desire for transparency in government. And it was something many Americans were dying for as well, after eight years of a Bush White House that many felt had stifled even the notion of transparency. Yet, the Obama administration is taking some heat now, after holding an off-the-record lunch for White House beat reporters who weren't quite feeling the love—and actually downright neglected. Some outlets, such as The New York Times, declined the invitation, put off by the very idea of being asked to attend an off-the-record event with the biggest advocate of transparency.
Certainly the idea of off-the-record conversations or meetings with reporters is not new or exclusive to those covering the White House; it's common practice when you're covering any industry. Here at PRWeek, I've had several of them. Sometimes it's to help me understand an issue, or even have the background knowledge that could later lead to a story. Back in 2006, President Bush invited several reporters from key news organizations to the White House to have off-the-record meetings about the war in Iraq. Though criticized by some, many reporters actually liked the idea of these meetings because it allowed them to “kick back” and have an unstructured conversation with the most important man in the world.
Even so, there is something that rings false about President Obama choosing to, in essence, have a press luncheon where the press is forbidden to report on it. One-on-one conversations with reporters where the President may choose to go off the record at some point is one thing; gathering a group of the most influential journalists in Washington but not allowing them to report anything on it just flies in the face of the transparency that Obama has lobbied for—and achieved— up until now. And yes, the names of the reporters who attended the luncheon will be disclosed on the White House visitor logs, but who attends the lunch is not what the American public cares about. The press is supposed to be there to hold the government accountable, not be its lapdog. Kudos to those, like The New York Times, who have refused to take part in this; it would be good if more could have the guts to follow.