White House transparent? Yes says new press secretary

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(CNN) — Press groups, prominent journalists and administration critics have all accused President Barack Obama of failing to live up to his commitment to have the “most transparent administration in history.” To some, that pledge is now a punch line. But the commitment endures, newly appointed White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in an interview on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday.

Earnest, who was a deputy press secretary before his promotion in June, cited “a number of steps that we’ve taken to give people greater insight into what’s happening at the White House.”

There is built-in tension in the relationship between the president and the press, Earnest said: “If there’s ever a day when the White House press corps sits back and says, ‘You know, we’re getting all the information that we need from the White House Press Office,’ then everybody in the White House press corps would not be doing their jobs, right?”

Earnest said he had seen the letter to Obama signed by more than 40 news media organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists and National Press Foundation, urging the President and his federal agencies to be more transparent — to “stop the spin and let the sunshine in.”

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But when asked whether the groups had legitimate concerns, he referred back to the omnipresent tension between the two sides.

As the new press secretary, Earnest said he has a responsibility to “try to help the President live up to his commitment to be the most transparent president in history.”

In spite of aggressive prosecutions of whistleblowers and other actions, he said that he thought the administration had lived up to it so far — “absolutely” — and pointed to the quarterly release of White House visitor records and reporters’ access to presidential fundraisers at private homes.

Earnest, 39, is Obama’s third press secretary, following in the footsteps of Robert Gibbs and Jay Carney. He said he’d learned a lot from watching his predecessors’ briefings and now tries to “draw on some of the more effective things that they did” during his briefings.

Earnest described himself as a voracious consumer of media, thanks partly to the White House press clippings service and partly to his iPad. He plugged the Associated Press iPad app, and also ESPN, which he said is the first channel he probably checks when he turns on the television.

For work purposes, “I definitely spend some time on CNN,” he said, calling it “a pretty good barometer of what a lot of people — what a lot of people in this room — are going to be interested in on a daily basis.”

Online, he was quick to mention Politico as a website that he checks. “In some ways, they style themselves as the ESPN of politics.”

Earnest said the White House would continue to seek new and nontraditional ways for the President to reach the public, just as past administrations have.

“There’s no question that, at least in my view, that the President is the best advocate for his policies,” he said. “He is somebody who has a very clear sense of what his priorities are. And when he can be put in a position where he can communicate those priorities, we’re firing on all cylinders. We’re running at our best.”

He joked about the recent Emmy nomination for Obama’s interview on Zach Galifianakis’ satirical online talk show “Between Two Ferns”: “I think the President would say that it’s an honor just being nominated.” (The awards will be presented in August.)

“We’re always looking for new ideas,” Earnest said. “Some of them can be online. But maybe there’s a great print idea out there that we haven’t come up with yet.”

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