'A New Level of Secrecy and Control': Jill Abramson on the Obama White House

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In 2007, the Frontline documentary "News War" featured a series of interviews with Bill Keller, then the executive editor of Takeaway partner The New York Times. Frontline host Lowell Bergman asked Keller about freedom of the press under the Bush Administration. 

"We have an administration that is more secretive and more hostile to the operations of the press probably than any since the Nixon administration," Keller replied.

As Bergman noted in the documentary, many prominent journalists and news organizations agreed with Keller. They may have even looked forward to the Obama years, hoping the new administration would have a change of heart. 

Jill Abramson succeeded Keller as executive editor in July 2011, in the midst of the Obama era. She tells Takeaway host John Hockenberry that the White House's relationship with the press has only deteriorated. 

"The Obama years are a benchmark for a new level of secrecy and control," says Abramson. "It's created quite a challenging atmosphere for The New York Times, and for some of the best reporters in my newsroom who cover national security issues in Washington."

Abramson says that the administration's criminal leak investigations have presented large obstacles to news coverage.

"There have been seven of them, and one of them right now threatens my colleague James Risen who has been subpoenaed in one of these cases," she says. "Collectively, they have really, I think, put a chill on reporting about national security issues in Washington."

Those that are covering national security, according to Abramson, say that is has never been more difficult to get information.

"Sources who want to come forward with important stories that they feel the public needs to know are just scared to death that they're going to be prosecuted," she says. "Reporters fear that they will find themselves subpoenaed in this atmosphere."

Abramson says that the Obama Administration uses legal loopholes to make things difficult for journalists and media organizations. She says, for example, that the Obama Justice Department pursues cases against reporters under an obscure provision of the 1917 Espionage Act.

"I think, in a back door way using an obscure provision of an old law, they are tip-toeing close to things that, here in the United States, we've never had," says Abramson. 

In addition to shutting out reporters, Abramson says that photographers also have less access.

"Instead, [there's] a preference to have journalists rely on photography handouts from the White House," she says. "I'm not knocking the White House photographers—they're great—but you don't want one source for all information and all imagery about the president."

While Abramson says that the White House hasn't completely shut out the U.S. press corps, even routine media coverage has become difficult to obtain.

"The amount of friction and confrontation involved in just going about what I see as perfectly normal coverage, that in the past wouldn't have even provoked a discussion, becomes a protracted and somewhat exhausting process," she says.