SEC Claims Information Opacity, But Media No Longer So Concerned With Transparency

August 3rd, 2010 6:30 PM
Seal of the Securities and Exchange Commission

It seems that not even the truth can possibly overturn the narrative that President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have brought transparency to Washington.

Last Wednesday I wrote about how the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill Obama signed into law last month contains a provision exempting the Securities and Exchange Commission from Freedom of Information Act requests. Such an exemption would surely have been grounds for a media outcry during the Bush administration, yet apart from The Wall Street Journal and CNN, only blogs have been following the developments. The latter opted simply to parrot the administration's claims without challenge.

Other media ouetlets, such as National Public Radio and MSNBC, completely ignored the controversy, in stark contrast to their extensive coverage of the Bush administration's attempts to curtail the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. NPR's Don Gonyea said "When conflicts arise over what should or should not be open, the administration does not hesitate to invoke the memory of 9/11. And while it's true that 9/11 changed the security landscape, it's also true that the administration was tightening the control of information much earlier . . ."

Some journalists are simply accepting the official SEC double-talk at face value. Unlike The Wall Street Journal, which actually bothered to talk to people familiar with the SEC and the bill, CNN just repeated what Chairwoman Mary Schapiro said in her letters, starting off their story with: "The Securities and Exchange Commission was not seeking a blanket exemption from public information laws . . ."

Contrast this "see no evil" approach with CNN's coverage of similar controversies during the Bush administration.

In August of 2007, CNN's Jack Cafferty covered the Bush administration's attempt to exempt the White House Office of Administration from FOIA, noting the administration's claims that certain federal officers were exempt from the law. "What do you suppose is in the millions of missing White House e-mails that President Bush doesn't want anyone to see?" Cafferty asked, rhetorically.

And in March of 2004, CNN analyst Ron Brownstein hammered home the alleged lack of transparency in the Bush administration, as evinced by its stance on FOIA. "They're [the Bush administration] very tough on executive privilege in general, and on the flow of information more broadly than that," Brownstein claimed. "Everything from the Freedom of Information Act to the Cheney Commission on Energy."

But with Obama in office, CNN doesn't seem to be particularly concerned about the SEC's apparent disdain for transparency. All it's doing is reprinting talking points, after all.

MSNBC, another news outlet that has yet to devote a single word to the SEC exemption, was also far more concerned with openness during the previous administration. Mike Barnicle, guest-hosting Hardball in 2007, said in reference to Bush's Office of Administration: "The White House says the Freedom of Information act doesn't apply to the office that handles their e-mails, even though their Web site says it does. Are they breaking the law?"

Meanwhile, Rachel Maddow claimed on the day after Obama's inauguration that secrecy was "the hallmark of the Bush years, the thing that often made Bush administration law-breaking possible because nobody knew it was happening. The best tool that we, the people, have to break through government secrecy is often the Freedom of Information Act. It was treated as an annoyance, an obstacle to be overcome by the Bush administration."

Again, these are a concerns this cable network has yet to extend to the SEC.

Chairwoman Schapiro has written letters to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Ct) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Ma) explaining that the law doesn't really exempt them from responding to FOIA requests. She asserted that entities regulated by her agency under the new financial "reform" legislation must "be able to provide us with access to confidential information without concern that the information will later be made public."

Schapiro claimed in her letter that the provisions in question are "not designed to protect the SEC as an agency from public oversight and accountability." The mainstream press has apparently decided to take her word for it. How nice of them. It's not like federal bureaucrats have ever failed to follow their agency's guidelines . . .

This press's attitude, of course, stands in sharp contrast to just a few years ago, when members of the media were outraged by Republican attempts to restrict FOIA requests.

Many in the media have, like NPR, decried the Bush administration's use of 9/11 to curtail transparency, but thus far no one has criticized the current administration's use of financial reform for the same goals.

The double standard is telling.