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Commentary: Obama must get serious about transparency

This editorial appeared in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

If the Obama administration really means it about greater transparency in government, officials could go a long way toward establishing credibility by attaching their names and titles to their words during routine policy briefings.

Standard practice in the nation's capital for too long has been for top-level officials to talk with a collection of reporters and then get identified as "a senior administration official," or something similarly vague.

It's a bad habit, and now's a good time to change.

The use of unnamed sources for no obvious good reason became especially pronounced under the Bush administration's strangling approach toward controlling the release of public information. There was one episode in which former Star-Telegram correspondent Ron Hutcheson, then with Knight Ridder, walked out of a briefing when the official talking with reporters wouldn't explain why a name couldn't be used. He walked alone.

But later a contingent of press corps representatives persuaded the White House to be more forthcoming.

Journalists might grouse about secrecy, but they consider themselves at a competitive disadvantage if they get excluded from briefings for not playing by the rules. Establishment news organizations don't seem interested in taking the lead on abolishing the charade; could it be they prefer being in on a secret that the general public doesn't share?

At times, usually involving sensitive foreign policy matters, it's important to provide reporters with background that will help them better explain a development to the public. In rare cases, attaching a name to the information might prove detrimental rather than enhancing public awareness. But that should be the exception, not the rule.

The new administration already has shown the folly of no-names-please backgrounders.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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