Obama vs. the San Francisco Chronicle

Did the administration threaten to exclude the San Francisco Chronicle from covering future presidential events? Reporter Carla Marinucci says yes, although the White House denies it.

A little over a week ago, protesters paid $5,000 each to get into a DNC fundraiser where they could interrupt Obama’s speech and break into a song, expressing their opposition to the solitary detention of alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower Private Bradley Manning. These particular vocalists appeared daring in their interruption, although they sang about how the president had their vote regardless, and upon finishing the tune gushed to him about how much they loved him.

The spectacle was caught on video by Marinucci. But the White House says this violates the terms agreed to by reporters at these pool-only events. According to Marinucci, the White House attempted to intimidate her, threatening to bar her, her paper, and other Hearst papers from future access. The administration implies this is not true: “[N]o reporters have been banned from covering future presidential events and the White House of course would have no problem including any reporter who follows the rules in pool-only events.”

So there appears to be a real conflict over what happened here, a clash between the SF Chronicle‘s side of the story, and Obama’s. Moreover, the chilling effect that would be implied if the administration did indeed intimidate the Chronicle is significant, and the newspaper is brave for standing up for transparency and apparently going head to head with the administration over this. It was also brave for Marinucci to take out her camera in violation of the rules in the first place, since the public interest in seeing video of the president’s embarrassment should outweigh whatever possible reason there could be for barring video cameras from the fundraiser.

One could argue: If this is a private fundraiser for a political candidate on private property, shouldn’t the candidate have discretion over how it’s covered by the media? Perhaps, so far as it goes—but the White House should not use the awe of its executive power to intimidate reporters regarding future “presidential” events. It would seem that in this capacity, the executive branch is claiming an official, executive aura to this gathering. Not only should this not apply to political fundraisers, but insofar as it is a “presidential” event, the case for wide latitude in media coverage becomes all the stronger. Indeed, one could argue that the president, by virtue of being in the position of power he is in, should have less privacy, even at private fundraisers, than would most other political candidates. In any event, if the presidency is claiming that this is an executive-branch function, transparency should apply.

Even if the White House did not intimidate the SF Chronicle in the way it was reported, these rules against covering private fundraisers when the president is there—and certainly the pretense of these rules resting on the legitimacy of the administration’s official business—are most inappropriate, especially for a president whose website in 2009 boasted was “committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history.”

If the administration is going to spy on us, we should be allowed to watch videos of the president’s embarrassment when some peaceful (and friendly) protesters interrupt his speech and begin to petition musically for a redress of grievances.

Anthony Gregory is a former Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books American Surveillance and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
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