For decades, among the first thing cub reporters learned when covering local government was that the words “executive session” meant public officials were going behind closed doors to conduct business they wanted to keep out of the public eye.
More often than not, the journalists barred from the meeting passed influential developers and other special interest lobbyists on their way in to confer with the decision makers. Thanks to public meetings laws requiring city councils, county boards of supervisors and other local and state officials to meet and vote in public, it’s much tougher for them to hold such clandestine gatherings.
Judging by the silence of the hundreds of professional journalists covering Congress for the mainstream media, however, it appears this lesson from Covering Government 101 has been forgotten. President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — all of whom have in recent years promised unprecedented levels of transparency in government — are flouting their own words by meeting in secret to write the final version of Obamacare. They are doing this to avoid the public meetings of a bipartisan conference committee representing the Senate and House and the multiple, on-the-record roll-call votes required in both chambers on a conference committee report.
The most radical expansion of central government power in American history is happening right under these journalists’ noses, and yet they raise not a peep of protest when the doors close, effectively barring them from doing their jobs at a critical juncture. Where are the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Radio and Television News Directors Association? These august organizations vigorously and rightfully protested former Vice President Richard Cheney’s secret meetings with oil company executives in the early days of the Bush administration. They also wailed loud and long about the Bush administration’s abuses — many real and some imagined — of the Freedom of Information Act.
To be sure, many of the reporters on the Hill gripe and complain to each other and to their editors about these closed door meetings. And many of them stand keeping vigil outside the doors, waiting for Reid or Pelosi to come out and offer them a morsel of information. But that’s not good enough. It’s time for a sit-down protest by journalists whose first job is to uphold the public’s right to know what their government is doing. Invite readers to come join them in demanding open meetings. The last thing Reid and Pelosi want is the spectacle of the Capitol Hill Police dragging protesting journalists away from the closed doors. It’s time to show some cojones, people.