Clampdown on Obama’s Open Government

  • Climate scientist James Hansen says censoring science and controlling the message or restricting access is not unique to the Bush White House. (Photo courtesy of The White House)

The Obama administration has stressed openess and transparency in government. But Lester Graham reports, government employees, scientists and journalists say that transparency is not as clear as they’d like.

Transcript

The Obama administration has stressed openness and transparency in government. But Lester Graham reports, government employees, scientists and journalists say that transparency is not as clear as they’d like:

Federal government websites have started featuring plans for transparency. Go to the Environmental Protection Agency site and you’ll find the “Open Government Plan 1.0.” The Food and Drug Administration site has a “transparency tool.” You can click on the Department of Energy’s “open” icon. Nearly every federal agency has a similar openess and transparency plan.
But inside the agencies you’ll hear a different story.

James Hansen is a climate scientist in NASA’s Goddard Space Center. He was famously muzzled by the Bush administration because Hansen’s science on climate change did not match the Bush White House policy on climate change. But James Hansen says censoring science and controlling the message or restricting access is not unique to the Bush White House.

“It’s really both parties feel they control the offices of public affairs in the science agencies. And, they think that the news that comes out of the offices of public affairs should be supportive of the administration’s policies.”

It seems to be a carry-over from political campaigns. During the campaign, handlers work keep everyone “on message” to make there are no embarrasing statements. Then, they bring that same mentality with them when they’re rewarded with jobs in the government.

One career press officer who did not want to be identified told me about “exteme frustration” among his colleagues. Recently there’s been a quote “tightening of the screws” by political appointees overseeing the press officers. Instead of the press officers doing their job, helping journalists get in contact with the bureaucrats, and scientists within an agency… they’re inhibited, restricted by political appointees.

Journalists have been trying to work around the obstacles thrown up by the political appointees.

Christy George is a reporter and the President of The Society of Environmental Journalists. Full disclosure here– I am a member of the SEJ. She says the journalists have been fighting this battle against many presidential administrations.

“Politicians love to control their message.”

But with all the promises of transparency in government, some reporters thought things would change.

“When President Obama came in and pledged to greater transparency and open government, we thought that was going to be a good thing and dramatically different from the Bush administration. And it’s not dramatically different in certain agencies. It seems like things are just largely continuing on.”

Christy George is quick to note, the Environmental Protection Agency has addressed some of the journalists’ issues. But, there are still problems of getting access to key scientists and others who contribute to how laws are enforced.

“It becomes harder to get information out of government when people are trying to manage information.”

Darrell West is the vice president and director of Governance Studies at the think tank, the Brookings Institution. He says when political appointees work to control the message, it’s not helpful to anyone.
And West says some of this transparency that agencies are trumpeting is really a way to avoid the scrutiny of journalists and activists and present information directly to the public through the internet.

“There is a risk that the flow of information is going to be more restricted and people are going to be told only what the government wants them to hear.”

And if you’re only hearing what the government wants you to hear… there’s a significant risk you’re not going to hear all you need to know.

For the Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

President Obama Gags Federal Employees

  • Some say this is similar to the kind of gag orders issued during the Bush Administration. (Photo by Pete Souza, courtesy of the White House)

The Obama Open Government
Directive is supposed to open
government to the people.
Lester Graham reports everything
is not as open as you might hope:

Transcript

The Obama Open Government
Directive is supposed to open
government to the people.
Lester Graham reports everything
is not as open as you might hope:

Some agencies have posted new websites that encourage the public to talk with the government.

At the same time, officials in the government were telling their people not to talk to the public or the media and threatening disciplinary action toward some employees who posted on the web things they knew about government proposals.

Recent memos from Forest Service officials order their law enforcment employees not to talk to any national media or any local reporter covering a national issue without approval from the Washington press office.

Jeff Ruch is the executive director of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“So, it’s hard to maintain on one hand you’re being transparent and on the other hand the people who know what’s going on aren’t allowed to speak.”

Ruch says this is similar to the kind of gag orders issued during the Bush Administration.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

Finding Green Space in the Downturn

  • Foreclosed houses are being demolished, leaving open spaces that some neighborhoods are turning into gardens. (Photo by Julie Grant)

It might be hard to think about a “silver lining” when so many people are facing foreclosure on their homes. But in some cities people are using foreclosures and the demolition of those homes to turn neighborhoods greener. Julie Grant reports that all the open space is encouraging some people to start gardening:

Transcript

It might be hard to think about a “silver lining” when so many people are facing foreclosure on their homes. But in some cities people are using foreclosures and the demolition of those homes to turn neighborhoods greener. Julie Grant reports that all the open space is encouraging some people to start gardening:

We’re watching the huge arm of a backhoe smash into the front of a house. The air is thick with dust. So many houses in this Cleveland neighborhood have wood nailed to where the windows and doors should be – it’s hard to tell which one is next for the wrecking ball.

25 year old George Hannett is NOT happy about what’s happening on his street:

“It’s not good. It’s bad for the neighborhood.”

The City of Clevelend does not want these abandoned homes left to rot or attract crime – so it plans to demolish 1,200 homes this year.

Morgan Taggart works with the Ohio State University extension office. It’s her job to help people create urban gardens.

She says tearing down so many houses is starting to leave a mark on neighborhoods in lots of cities – Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland.

“These spaces become very difficult for neighborhoods to manage because they are an attractive nuisance to all sorts of illicit and illegal activities that aren’t really great for the community.”

Taggart says lots of people want to start growing their own food. The economy is luring them back to gardening. Especially in neighborhoods that don’t have big supermarkets with fresh produce. These vacant lots
are giving them new places to plant. But they’re not sure how to go about planting a garden.

Vel Scott has lived in Cleveland 30 years, in a neighborhood with lots of unused land. She sees people on the bus struggling with shopping carts, carrying babies – doing whatever they have to do to get groceries home. But last year Scott realized – there’s another way to feed people. And she started her first garden since she was a kid.

“And I thought about, well, we have this land so why not go over and clear it and use it?”

It was a great idea. But, Vel Scott pretty quickly realized it was easier said than done.

“And after I got over there and it’s such a huge piece of land and I thought ‘My, God, where do I start?’ You know, I don’t know what to do. So we did a V– V for victory, V for Vel,whatever you wanted it to be.”

Scott says wants her land to be a place where they grow vegetables – and cook them right there. She teaches a cooking class so it made sense to her to show people in the neighborhood how to use the vegetables from the garden.

There are some concerns about gardening on vacant land. After all, the land usually belongs to the city. People don’t want to put lots of time and resources into cultivating the soil – if the city is going to turn around and sell to a developer at the first opportunity.

That’s why Cleveland has created a new zoning category to protect its urban gardens. Morgan Taggart with the extension service says this is a post-industrial vision for cities:

It’s an opportunity for us to reimagine our neighborhoods, our city, our county and how we can integrate more sustainable principles into the planning of our neighborhoods.”

Back at the house demolition, people watching the workers tear down the structure say it’s hard to imagine a vegetable garden where this house used to be. But Vel Scott says that in just one season of gardening, her neighbors and local children have seen what she’s done. They’ve started clearing more land and this spring they’re planting their own gardens.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

Report: Epa Limiting Info Access

A government watchdog group says the Environmental
Protection Agency might be limiting the public’s access to
information. Rebecca Williams reports that could hurt future
research on health and safety:

Transcript

A government watchdog group says the Environmental
Protection Agency might be limiting the public’s access to
information. Rebecca Williams reports that could hurt future
research on health and safety:

The EPA has been closing several of its research libraries. The agency
started doing that two years ago to save money. The libraries have
information on chemical safety, Superfund sites, and all kinds of other
health and safety data.

The Government Accountability Office says the EPA cut corners… and acted
too quickly.

The GAO reports the EPA closed the libraries without consulting outside
experts.

The report says the EPA closed its Chemical Library without notifying EPA
staff or the public. EPA scientists used the library to review industry
requests before new chemicals could be put on the market.

Congress has directed the EPA to re-open the libraries. The EPA hasn’t
reopened them yet. But the agency says it’s reviewing its library plans.

For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Pollution Credits as Stocking Stuffers

Here’s a last-minute gift idea for a green-thinking loved one. A New York-based environmental group will retire a pollution credit in someone’s honor. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein explains:

Transcript

Here’s a last-minute gift idea for a green-thinking loved one. A New York-
based environmental group will retire a pollution credit in someone’s honor.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein explains:


The Environmental Protection Agency issues pollution credits to power
plants. Each one allows them to emit one ton of sulfur dioxide from their
smokestack.


Several years ago, one power company donated 10,000 of the credits to the
Adirondack Council. The group’s a non-profit working to reduce acid rain.
Instead of trading them on the open market, where they can fetch up to 800
dollars apiece, the Council decided to retire the credits. Spokesman John
Sheehan says for 50 bucks, the group will send someone a gift certificate.


“That certificate will show that that person has removed essentially one ton
of sulfur dioxide from the atmosphere permanently and that that pollution
will never go up a smokestack anywhere in the country, and it will help
clean up the Adirondacks and the rest of the United States at the same time.”


Sheehan says the Adirondack Council has about 3,000 credits left. His staff
will be around until Thursday to help people give the gift of cleaner air this
Christmas.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links