8 ways the Obama administration is blocking information

The fight for access to public information has never been harder, Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee said recently at a joint meeting of the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors and the Associated Press Photo Managers. The problem extends across the entire federal government and is now trickling down to state and local governments.

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

Here is Buzbee’s list of eight ways the Obama administration is making it hard for journalists to find information and cover the news:

1) As the United States ramps up its fight against Islamic militants, the public can’t see any of it. News organizations can’t shoot photos or video of bombers as they take off — there are no embeds. In fact, the administration won’t even say what country the S. bombers fly from.

2) The White House once fought to get cameramen, photographers and reporters into meetings the president had with foreign leaders overseas. That access has become much rarer. Think about the message that sends other nations about how the world’s leading democracy deals with the media:  Keep them out and let them use handout photos.

3) Guantanamo: The big important 9/11 trial is finally coming up. But we aren’t allowed to see most court filings in real time — even of nonclassified material. So at hearings, we can’t follow what’s happening. We don’t know what prosecutors are asking for, or what defense attorneys are arguing.

4) Information about Guantanamo that was routinely released under President George W. Bush is now kept secret. The military won’t release the number of prisoners on hunger strike or the number of assaults on guards. Photo and video coverage is virtually nonexistent.

5) Day-to-day intimidation of sources is chilling. AP’s transportation reporter’s sources say that if they are caught talking to her, they will be fired. Even if they just give her facts, about safety, for example. Government press officials say their orders are to squelch anything controversial or that makes the administration look bad.

6) One of the media — and public’s — most important legal tools, the Freedom of Information Act, is under siege. Requests for information under FOIA have become slow and expensive. Many federal agencies simply don’t respond at all in a timely manner, forcing news organizations to sue each time to force action.

7) The administration uses FOIAs as a tip service to uncover what news organizations are pursuing. Requests are now routinely forwarded to political appointees. At the agency that oversees the new health care law, for example, political appointees now handle the FOIA requests.

8) The administration is trying to control the information that state and local officials can give out. The FBI has directed local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology the police departments use to sweep up cellphone data. In some cases, federal officials have formally intervened in state open records cases, arguing for secrecy.

AP announces new political reporting lineup

U.S. Political Editor David Scott announced the AP’s new political reporting lineup in a memo to staff today:

All,

Please join me in welcoming Steve Peoples as he joins the Washington bureau this month as a political reporter focused on the Republican Party and its candidates for president in 2016.

Steve Peoples (AP Photo).

Steve Peoples (AP Photo).

“Joining” might seem like the wrong verb, since Steve has been a part of the AP’s political team — covering this crucial beat — for some time. From his base in Boston, and his second home at the many Marriotts of New Hampshire, Peoples turned his role as our northeast political reporter into a job whose scope reached far beyond New England.

For months during the last presidential campaign, Peoples was a fixture in the living rooms and coffee shops where the New Hampshire primary is won and lost. He sat in diners with Jon Huntsman’s family and rode mountain bikes with Ron Paul. He turned those intimate moments into a depth of sourcing that allowed him to excel as our reporter on the Mitt Romney campaign.

In recent months, even as he continued covering GOP contenders, Steve took it upon himself to keep the AP’s political reporting team organized and on point, leading story discussion meetings and organizing coverage of key moments of the off-campaign year. His assistance has been invaluable to me as I get up to speed in Washington.

With this move, AP will now field quite the political reporting lineup — a team that’s ready for the upcoming presidential election, which as we all know is well underway.

Ken Thomas and Julie Pace (AP Photo).

Ken Thomas and Julie Pace (AP Photo).

Leading off are Steve and Ken Thomas, our reporter on the national Democratic Party and, therefore, Hillary Rodham Clinton. As the campaign gains momentum, they’ll increasingly be joined by Julie Pace and members of the White House team. There is no better place for AP’s White House Correspondent to prepare to lead AP’s coverage of the next president than out in the country as voters make the choice of who will next sit in the Oval Office.

Who might they be writing about this time next year? Still to be determined, although we have some clues. We know for certain the campaign will start in Iowa, where Tom Beaumont will tell the story, joined as the campaign moves along by political reporters Nick Riccardi in Denver, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Mike Mishak in Miami and Jill Colvin in New Jersey. And they’re backed with Washington’s Phil Elliott on money and media, Jesse Holland on race, ethnicity and voters, and Chuck Babington on the intersection of politics, the campaign and Congress. All guided by the intel provided by polling chief Jenn Agiesta, and assisted by Donna Cassata, Dave Espo and all the member of our team on the Hill.

And then there are all the beat reporters in Washington whose expertise on policy so often makes the AP’s political report something truly distinct. And all the political reporters AP has in every statehouse, which gives AP — and therefore its members and customers — a reach that no one can match.

And that’s just the text team. We’re already working on exciting ideas on how we’ll carry out our political story telling in video for 2016. For now, I’m thrilled to welcome Steve to Washington and so excited to be working with him, this team and our staff in U.S. news to tell the story of another chapter in the grand American experiment.

From Washington,

David

Learn more about AP’s national politics team and follow @AP_Politics on Twitter.

AP team interviews Iraq’s new prime minister

The Associated Press is the first foreign media organization to interview Haider al-Abadi, who was officially named Iraq’s prime minister on Sept. 8.

In the all-formats interview conducted today in Baghdad, the prime minister “strongly rejected the idea of the U.S. or other nations sending ground forces to his country to help fight the Islamic State group,” according to the AP account. He said that foreign troops are “out of the question.”

Read the AP news story by Baghdad Bureau Chief Vivian Salama and reporter Qassim Abdul-Zahra.

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Iraq’s new prime minister says foreign ground troops are neither necessary nor wanted in his country’s fight against the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Iraq’s new prime minister says foreign ground troops are neither necessary nor wanted in his country’s fight against the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Q&A: How AP stays ahead in the mobile space

The Associated Press has released a new version of AP Mobile, its award-winning news app, to offer full support for Apple’s new operating system, iOS 8, and the hotly anticipated iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Here, Michael Boord, director of mobile products, explains how AP is staying ahead in the mobile space:

Director of Mobile Products Michael Boord (AP Photo).

Director of Mobile Products Michael Boord (AP Photo).

How is AP Mobile optimized for iOS 8 and the new iPhone?
From a user perspective, the app won’t look much different, but our developers have been working for months making backend changes that should make the app perform better than ever. We’ve also made some enhancements to the sharing features, so users can more easily post stories on social media. Users will notice a new “Big Story” carousel on their home screen to more prominently surface the major developing stories AP is covering around the world, from the Ebola outbreak to the entertainment awards season.

What content can users find on AP Mobile?
The app features the best of AP’s journalism in every format, including breaking news alerts, hourly radio updates, stunning images, interactive graphics and video reports. It’s customizable, so users can choose what news categories they want, from sports and entertainment to politics or local news.

MOBILEHow does AP Mobile showcase local content?
Users pick which local publications they want to see from our more than 1,100 contributing partners. We’re also working closely with AP members to showcase their work on the app’s tiled-based home screen. For example, we recently featured reporting from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and content from the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the corruption trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. These were stories of national interest and we helped our users discover content they might not otherwise see.

Who’s reading AP Mobile?
Since its launch in 2008, AP Mobile has been downloaded over 14 million times and is consistently among the highest-rated news apps in the app stores. We tend to see spikes in the number of downloads when breaking news happens, and we find it gratifying that people turn to AP for fast, accurate information. Even the White House press secretary told CNN he uses the app to stay up to date.

What’s next?
Because we’ve already optimized for iO8, we are well-positioned for substantial updates in the future. We’re hoping to roll out some new content features in November and are continuing to look for unique ways to surface compelling, authoritative local content.

Download AP Mobile from the Apple iTunes or Google Play app stores.

Now we say ‘the Islamic State group’ instead of ISIL

Back in June we talked in this blog about AP’s preferred abbreviation for the fast-growing Islamic militant group in Iraq and Syria, known variously at the time as ISIL and ISIS. We explained why our preference was ISIL.

Things then changed with ISIL’s decision in July to rebrand itself as the “Islamic State.” In a recent story, we explained that AP now refers to the organization as “the Islamic State group” (not simply “the Islamic State”) and the reason for this approach.

The story is below:

By VIVIAN SALAMA
Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — Propaganda has been one of the core strategies of the Sunni militant group in Syria and Iraq that today calls itself the Islamic State — and its name is very much a part of that.

In July, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced its rebranding. He declared that the territory under his control would be part of a caliphate, or an Islamic state, shortening its name from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL — the acronym used by the Obama administration and the British Foreign Office to this day. The Levant can refer to all countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt.

Different translations for the name of the al-Qaida splinter group have emerged since the early days of its existence.

Some have chosen to call it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The final word in Arabic — al-Sham — can be translated as Levant, Syria, or as Damascus.

Arab governments have long refrained from using Islamic State, instead referring to it by the Arabic acronym for its full original name, Daesh — short for Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham.

Kurdish citizens who live in Lebanon hold Arabic placards that read, "To be Yazidi means love, accord and peace" and "No to killing the Yazidi sect by Daesh" during a demonstration against the Islamic State group, in front of the UN building, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Monday Sept. 15, 2014. An activist group and a Kurdish official say heavy clashes are taking place in northeastern Syria, with Kurdish fighters capturing about a dozen villages from Islamic militants. Kurdish fighters and members of the Islamic State group have been fighting each other for more than a year in northern Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Kurdish citizens who live in Lebanon hold Arabic placards that read, “To be Yazidi means love, accord and peace” and “No to killing the Yazidi sect by Daesh” during a demonstration against the Islamic State group, in front of the UN building, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Monday Sept. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Several residents in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to the extremist group in June, told The Associated Press that the militants threatened to cut the tongue of anyone who publicly used the acronym Daesh, instead of referring to the group by its full name, saying it shows defiance and disrespect. The residents spoke anonymously out of fear for their safety.

The inconsistency, while confusing for some, has not deterred the group’s growing exposure on social media, with so many hashtags, posts and tweets ultimately directing readers and viewers to their news. Despite being associated to about a half-dozen names and acronyms, the group’s brutal objectives are becoming increasingly clear.

Prior to the group’s self-declared rebranding in July, The Associated Press opted to refer to it as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, believing it was the most accurate translation.

The AP now uses phrases like “the Islamic State group,” or “fighters from the Islamic State group,” to avoid phrasing that sounds like they could be fighting for an internationally recognized state.

“The word ‘state’ implies a system of administration and governance,” said David L. Phillips, the director of Peace-Building and Rights Program at Columbia University. “It’s not a term that would be used to characterize a terrorist group or militia that is merely rolling up territory.”

“Part of their strategy is to establish administration over lands that they control so that they demonstrate that they are more than just a fighting force,” Phillips added. Equally problematic is the use of the word “Islamic” in its name, with some calling it blasphemous.

On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius referred to the group as Daesh, calling them “butchers” who do not represent Islam or a state. He urged others to do the same.

Egypt’s top Islamic authority, Grand Mufti Ibrahim Negm, last month called on the international community to refer to the group as “al-Qaida separatists” and not the Islamic State.

“Their savage acts don’t coincide with the name of Islam,” said Sunni cleric Hameed Marouf Hameed, an official with Iraq’s Sunni religious endowment. “They incite hatred, violence and killing and these acts have no place in any real Islamic state.”

___

Associated Press reporters Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Angela Charlton in Paris and Greg Katz in London contributed to this report.

Some great saves

Every few weeks, I share with the AP staff some “great saves” by staffers who protected AP and its subscribers from hoaxes and inaccuracies. Here are some recent ones:

● Hours after an Air Algerie plane disappeared over Africa, Twitter blew up with claims that Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and niece of Fidel Castro, was on the plane. The information came from a Facebook post by the airport in Burkina Faso where the flight began, and said Castro was on the manifest. Major newspapers in Argentina, Spain and the UK went with the story online, as did some U.S. outlets. AP Havana quickly reached a source close to Mariela Castro, who said she was not on the plane. Another source told AP she was at a conference at a Havana hotel. Newswoman Andrea Rodriguez drove to the hotel and persuaded a press official to crack open a door to the closed event: there was Mariela Castro speaking from a lectern.

● A tweet went out from “Glee” star Chris Colfer’s verified account to his 2.5 million followers that said he was leaving the Fox show because of “personal issues.” Retweets went out to millions more, and a series of news outlets soon reported the news. Not the AP, however. Even though the account was verified as being legitimate by Twitter, TV writer Frazier Moore followed AP policy that even tweets from verified and familiar accounts need to be confirmed before we report them. So Moore fired off immediate emails to representatives of “Glee,” Fox and Colfer. Within a couple of minutes, Moore got his responses: Colfer wasn’t going anywhere. The actor’s account had been hacked and the tweet was bogus. Others sent corrections.

● On July 14, several news outlets carried stories with headlines like “It’s a miracle! Dead child wakes up at funeral.” The stories said a 2-year-old girl in the Philippines died but moved a finger and had a weak pulse at her funeral. The tale seemed too good to be true, and was just that. Manila correspondent Oliver Teves learned that others published the story without thoroughly investigating the claim. The girl was dead and had been buried. A health official had gone to her village and used a cardiac monitor to confirm there was no heartbeat, no breath and no pulse. She attributed the girl’s lack of rigor mortis _ one of the conditions that people cited to claim she was alive _ to her small muscle mass. We stayed away from the story.

● It would have been big news. On July 17, several news organizations quoted an Israeli official as saying Israel and Hamas had agreed to a cease-fire deal that was to take effect at 6 a.m. the next day. We received several requests for the story. But AP staffers Karin Laub and Mohammad Daraghmeh decided to check further. Daraghmeh quickly got in touch with a top aide of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who told him the report was baseless. Other news organizations soon had to backtrack.

Brad and Angelina costar in wedding, AP reports first

AP film writer Jake Coyle (AP photo).

AP film writer Jake Coyle (AP photo).

The wedding last Saturday in France of superstars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt “caps years of rampant speculation on when the couple would officially tie the knot,” writes AP film writer Jake Coyle, who broke the news this morning.

An eruption of tweets and Facebook posts followed.

Coyle, who is deeply sourced in the entertainment industry, said he’d been in close contact with Pitt and Jolie’s camp over the last two years.

Coyle contributes to AP’s Oscar and Grammy coverage, as well as covering film festivals in Cannes, New York and Toronto. He has profiled performers ranging from Woody Allen to Ryan Gosling to Oprah Winfrey, and had one of the last interviews with James Gandolfini.

Coyle is also responsible for creating the AP’s Entertainer of the Year award, which has been given to Taylor Swift and Adele.

Follow Coyle on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

Follow AP Entertainment on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apentertainment

Stirring the sauce for a spicy story

In a memo to AP staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how a saucy story that questioned a politician’s charitable claims generated wide interest in New England:

For years, former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci’s face has beamed from the label of his Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce, which promises that sales are “Benefiting Providence School Children” and that it has helped hundreds of students attend college.

In this Aug. 8, 2014 photo, bottles of former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci's pasta sauce sits on the shelf at a grocery store in Providence, R.I. Below his photograph is printed the line “Benefiting Providence School Children.” In recent years, no money from sales of the sauce has been donated to Cianci's charity scholarship fund. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)

Something was fishy about the sauce, and Providence, R.I., correspondent Michelle Smith could taste it.

Smith dug into the charitable claims and discovered in recent years that in truth, no money from the sauce’s sales had been donated to Cianci’s charity scholarship fund. And from 2009 to 2012, the sauce made a total of $3 in income.

A Cianci adviser acknowledged to Smith that the label could be seen as false advertising and that he’d like to see it changed. Cianci himself admitted to Smith that even if the sauce didn’t make money, “There’s a certain public relations aspect to it all to me,” he said, “I can’t deny that.”

The concessions did not  come easily. Over 10 days of reporting _ around her other daily news duties _ Smith dogged Cianci’s lawyer for answers. Smith also pulled hundreds of pages of documents, set up a spreadsheet and got watchdogs to analyze the finances. She finally got what she needed from the lawyer by showing up in person to a Cianci event and eliciting a promise that he would turn over the relevant documents. This was critical because the specific financials were not available in any public documents.

A day after the sauce story,  Smith followed up with an examination of Cianci’s charity’s finances, finding it gives just a small fraction of assets out in scholarships every year, and spends most of its money on expenses other than for kids.

The one-two punch, both crafted in partnership with East day supervisor Jon Poet, created a ton of buzz.

The stories played atop the website for the Providence Journal, Rhode Island’s biggest newspaper. Both the Projo and The Boston Globe editorialized on it. Smith received notes and comments of congratulations from several [AP] members and sources.

Smith accompanied her reporting with her own photos, use by several members.

For hitting the sauce in a way that made the AP proud, Smith wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

On the killing of James Foley, journalist

The Associated Press is outraged by the killing of James Foley and condemns the taking of any journalist’s life. We believe those who kill journalists or hold them hostage should be brought to justice.

Further, we believe the assassination of a journalist in wartime should be considered an international crime of war.

The murder of a journalist with impunity  is a threat to a free press and democracy around the world.

– Gary Pruitt, AP president and CEO

Update: Pruitt elaborated on his view during an Aug. 24 interview on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

‘Our work becomes more important but also more dangerous’

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt addressed the company’s global staff following a tragic event Wednesday in Gaza:

It is with great sadness that I inform you that an AP videographer and a translator working for us have been killed in Gaza.  An AP photographer was badly injured in the same incident.

Simone Camilli, an Italian journalist and a veteran video journalist who has worked with AP for eight years, was killed when a bomb went off while he and his team were working with a bomb disposal unit.  Ali Shehda Abu Afash, a Palestinian translator who was working with the AP team, was also killed. Photographer Hatem Moussa was injured and is being treated at a Gaza hospital. A fourth member of the AP team, the driver, was uninjured.

Simone was well known throughout Europe, and especially to our video team in London, where his death has hit AP deeply. He had recently moved to Beirut with his wife. We have sent staff to be with her and with his family in Italy.

As all of you know, this has been a very difficult year for AP. Simone is the second staffer to die in the line of duty this year and the 33rd person since our founding in 1846. As conflict and violence grows around the world, our work becomes more important but also more dangerous. We take every precaution we can to protect the brave journalists who staff our frontlines. I never cease to be amazed at their courage.

All of us in the AP family grieve the loss of Simone and Ali Shehda, and we send our deepest sympathies to their families.

Gary

This July 1, 2014 photo shows Associated Press video journalist Simone Camilli at work filming Kurdish Peshmerga fighters under a bridge near the front line with militants from the Islamic state group, in Mariam Bek village, between the northern cities of Tikrit and Kirkuk, Iraq. Camilli, 35, was killed in an ordnance explosion in the Gaza Strip, on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 together with Palestinian translator Ali Shehda Abu Afash and three members of the Gaza police. Police said four other people were seriously injured, including AP photographer Hatem Moussa.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

This July 1, 2014 photo shows Associated Press video journalist Simone Camilli at work filming Kurdish Peshmerga fighters under a bridge near the front line with militants from the Islamic state group, in Mariam Bek village, between the northern cities of Tikrit and Kirkuk, Iraq. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

In this Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014 photo, Associated Press photographer Hatem Moussa works, in Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Moussa was seriously injured Wednesday when Gaza police engineers were neutralizing unexploded ordnance in the Gaza town of Beit Lahiya left over from fighting between Israel and Islamic militants. (AP Photo)

In this Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014 photo, Associated Press photographer Hatem Moussa works, in Gaza City, Gaza Strip. (AP Photo)