Our Views: A government closed to you

Perhaps the most famous of President Barack Obama’s misleading promises was about health insurance, but he also promised the most open government in history.

Turns out, according to a national expert who recently spoke in Louisiana, we haven’t even kept the old level of open government we used to have.

Across a broad range of policies, from prosecuting whistleblowers to wiretapping journalists’ phones to blocking release of public records, the Obama administration has set a new standard of government secrecy, said Leonard Downie, former editor of The Washington Post.

We wanted open government, but we couldn’t keep it — even at the level of the George W. Bush administration, it seems.

Downie told the Public Affairs Research Council’s annual meeting that editors across America are concerned they are struggling against a tide of both official blockades of information and a deluge of government-generated propaganda. The proliferation of websites and broadcasts for the latter is the basis of the president’s claim for openness in government, but propaganda and official happy-talk does not hold government accountable for its mistakes.

Reporters are finding many officials are afraid to speak frankly because of fear of political retribution. Requests for documents under open records laws are delayed; officials demand “exorbitant fees” to provide records that the law says should be open to inspection.

Unfortunately, Downie said, the problem of government secrecy and obfuscation trickles down to state and city governments, including Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal has imported the federal government’s notion of a “deliberative process” that can keep previously public records hidden from scrutiny.

That “deliberative process” excuse has now been stretched to include a vast number of records formerly available to the public as a matter of course.

We applaud members of the Legislature who are seeking to roll back the Jindal exception to the Public Records Law, restricting it only to genuine deliberation by the governor and his close staff.

“Governor Jindal is overusing its deliberative process exemption,” Downie said.

Nor is the Internet providing real accountability for state government, he added. “Little that I saw on state websites does have information that can help journalists and citizens assess government actions and the spending of taxpayers’ money,” Downie said.

Perhaps the last thing the governor needs to take into a putative national political campaign is the idea that he is copycatting President Obama in the realm of public records. Yet as Downie said, that is what has happened in Louisiana, weakening the power of public disclosure to prevent abuses in government.