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Will Barack Obama Open Up Our Government?

Obama Open Government CJR CoverBarack Obama is on the cover of January’s Columbia Journalism Review—but this hardly distinguishes the magazine from the others on the rack. The distinguishing feature is that Barack Obama appears something just short of sinister as he smirks and stares at you through a side-glancing eye. It’s almost as if the magazine’s art department peered inside the mind of a conservative talk show host and painted the Obama they found there.

The editorial inside calls on Obama to “turn the lights back on in the White House” and presents a laundry lists of actions he could take to decisively reject and reverse the excessive secrecy of his predecessor. 

Here’s a taste: 

* "In his first budget, restore, as Congress intended, the Office of Government Information Services to the National Archives and Records Administration, and remove it from the Justice Department, where conflicts of interest on transparency abound."

* "Get a handle on 'pseudo-secrecy'—the wholesale marking of documents with secret-ish labels outside of the official classification system—by reducing its use, establishing a system for appeals of such labels, and forbidding their use in Freedom of Information Act decisions." 

* "Revise outsourcing contracts to ensure that records generated by private companies doing government business will be treated like any agency-generated document."

The magazine's pages are peppered with points on a “Sunshine Timeline” that begins with a set of laws on public court proceedings and records passed by Henry III in 1267 and stumbles through the centuries grabbing at events as it finds them:

1766: Sweden adopts the first freedom of information law.

1935: The creation of the Federal Register, “the first comprehensive accounting of U.S. executive-branch rules and regulations.”

1953: “The American Society of Newspapers commissions a survey of all the laws (local, state, and federal) that could be used to gain access to government records—and concludes that the situation is bleak.”

1966: The Freedom of Information Act passes. “Without the votes to sustain the veto, and with Bill Moyers, his press secretary, urging him on, LBJ signs the bill.”