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Other view: Words aren’t enough for open government

President Barack Obama has used a lot of words to talk about government transparency. He pledged he would bring “a new era of openness” to Washington. He issued executive orders he said would ensure the American people could track what their government does.

His action and inaction tell a different story. The Obama administration has been one of the most secretive in decades.

Forty-six journalism organizations this month endorsed a letter urging Obama to open his administration up to public scrutiny. The signers are a who’s who of journalism that includes the Society of Professional Journalists, the Association of Opinion Journalists and the Poynter Institute.

They cite four specific problem areas as examples of “excessive information control”:

* Officials prevent reporters from speaking to agency staff people, forcing them instead to talk to approved spokespeople who often don’t know the issues as well as the experts.

* Spokespeople drag their feet answering requests for interviews. When they wait long enough, they cause reporters’ deadlines to pass and stories to run without official information that would have been truly helpful.

* Officials insist on speaking “on background,” i.e., anonymously, thereby evading genuine accountability.

* Federal agencies have blackballed reporters who write critically about them.

This is not just a bunch of journalists whining that their sources have clammed up. When the government censors what the public hears, it denies Americans the opportunity to fairly assess Washington’s performance. On Election Day, voters cannot make informed decisions.

Distrust in Washington stands at some of the highest levels ever recorded, and excessive secrecy is partly to blame — along with a dysfunctional Congress and rampant partisan bickering.

Obama has the power to embrace transparency in his administration. That requires more than words.