Open government is crucial to a functioning democracy. And ensuring and insisting on transparency and accountability from public officials at all levels is the highest and best function of a free press.
For that to work properly, however, it is important not to confuse the role of government watchdog with chronicling celebrities’ wardrobe malfunctions or substance abuse. The president is not some troubled starlet and members of the Washington press corps are not paparazzi.
That is about what it came to, however, after President Barack Obama spent the weekend in Florida. On Sunday, he golfed at a private resort with three other guys and neither the public nor the press were invited. The game was only noticed because a reporter from Golf Digest, who is apparently a member of the club, saw the foursome.
At that point, the White House press corps went over the top because one of the president’s golf partners was Tiger Woods – and nobody got so much as a picture. (The others were Jim Crane, owner of the resort and the Houston Astros, and U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk.)
Ed Henry, president of the White House Correspondents Association said later that “a broad cross section of our members from print, radio, online and TV have today expressed extreme frustration to me about having absolutely no access to the president of the United States this entire weekend. ... There is a very simple but important principle we will continue to fight for today and in the days ahead: transparency.”
Transparency about what? Golf? Woods’ 3-year-old scandals? The idea that the president knows rich and famous people?
There is nothing here. The president took the weekend off and went golfing. (He is not even the most frequent Oval Office golfer. That distinction goes to Woodrow Wilson, with Eisenhower in second place.) There was no suggestion anything untoward was going on or that there was anything newsworthy to find out. Except, that is, for Woods.
The importance of transparency in government cannot be overstated, but the focus should be on something more than celebrity.