Monday, May 25, 2020

Asking the NYT about the Ethics of Reporting Under The "Censorship by PIO"

A few weeks ago I wrote the New York Times, asking about the ethics of reporting under the “Censorship by PIO,” without openly opposing the constraints or directly informing the public about them.

The NYT Director of Communications responded saying they could not accommodate it at this time.

In the letter I said one consequence of the constraints is, “that when the pandemic bore down most reporters had not usually talked to staff in CDC, FDA, etc., without a PIO/censor for many years. Often reporters are completely blocked from talking to the persons they request. For many agencies, reporters cannot enter the building without escort, meaning usually they can’t enter. There is no system for credentialing to allow them to enter.”

My questions included:

---Is it a credible idea that our inability to talk to 10,000 plus people at CDC, for example, does not keep information from the public? Does anything in history indicate such situations will not hide disasters?

---Why is the press taking the risk?

---Journalists have many skills and techniques. Sometimes inside people defy the rules and talk to them. Reporters “get stuff.” They develop impressive stories that push the envelope of what is known. They relentlessly hew to the belief that, “Good reporters get the story anyway.” Does any of that mean we are not missing whole universes of facts and perspectives due to all these silenced people? Is the fact we do get stuff our only justification for working under these restraints?

---Looking at the impressive stories some of your reporters do, would those same excellent reporters not have their socks knocked off if they could walk or call around agencies and talk to people without minders?

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Webinar on Constraints on Staff Speech: Slam Dunk Not Legal, Says First Amendment Attorney

The Society of Professional Journalists’ webinar on censorship and obstruction through media relations offices is up on YouTube.
Among others, it features First Amendment attorney Frank LoMonte, who say the rules prohibiting employees from speaking to the media without permission are a pervasive problem and one that is not legal.

He said many journalists tell him that, with interference from public affairs offices, reporters never get to the front line expert. They get handed off to somebody who is handpicked, “probably somebody who was compliant with the agency’s message and was not a dissenter or a troublemaker or a complainer, somebody who was going to toe the agency’s party line.”

Or they got a canned release, said LoMonte.

He said, “We can say with a high degree of confidence, a slam dunk degree of confidence, that it is not legal for a public agency to maintain a policy that says that employees will suffer some kind of retaliation or reprisal or punishment if they are caught talking to the news media without approval.

“It is just overwhelmingly the case that every federal court that has been asked this question has come down the same way and it has been true for many, many decades.”

The courts have also said, LoMonte stressed, that journalists have the legal standing to bring challenges against these rules.

He said he encouraged news organizations and groups like SPJ to look for what are the most blatantly unconstitutional gag policies out there and, “Let’s find ways to take them on.”

LoMonte also said the Brechner Center, which he heads, will issue a report this summer on the similar rules that silence college athletes.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

SPJ Webinar May 5 Will Look at Censorship through Media Relations

The Society of Professional Journalists will hold a webinar to look at the controls on journalists including forcing reporters to go through public information officers to speak to anyone, May 5 at 2 p.m.

First Amendment Attorney Frank LoMonte will speak on his extensive analysis that finds controls on employees talking to the press are unconstitutional and many courts have so. 

Kathryn Foxhall, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member, will talk about journalism ethics in a time when agencies in charge of preventing catastrophes greatly block press scrutiny they don’t control.

Paul Fletcher, Editor of the Virginia Lawyers Weekly and head of the SPJ FOI Committee, will talk about practicalities of dealing with the roadblocks.

A link for registration is below. Recent news coverage is below that.


Washington Post Media columnist Margaret Sullivan did a piece on the PIO/media relations controls. She cites reporter’s memories of covering agencies over the last two to three decades: “Direct contact was minimized and tightly monitored. Interviews might take place with a public-relations ‘minder’ present.”

A Columbia Journalism Review article connects the long history of these controls with current circumstances, with among other things, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention being terrifyingly absent from public view.

Editorial in MedPage Today: “You Think China Has A COVID-19 Censorship Problem? We Aren’t Much Better.”

Radio interview on “Clearing the Fog,” April 6. “Another Method of Censorship: Media Minders. Media Minders portion of the show begins at about 32.54.  The site includes a transcript.

SPJ’s website on the issue gives background. SPJ, other journalism and open government groups have been speaking out against the controls for a decade.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

SPJ Webinar Will Look at the Censorship by PIO Issue

The Society of Professional Journalists plans a webinar on the media relations censorship or “Censorship by PIO” issue for May 5. It will feature Paul Fletcher, SPJ’s Freedom of Information chairperson; Frank LoMonte, the First Amendment attorney whose extensive analysis says the restraints are unconstitutional and that many courts have said so; and myself.

Further details to come.

In the Midst of the Pandemic, Some Focus on the Dangers on the Media Relations Censorship

Several news outlets have focused on the media relations censorship or “Censorship by PIO” issue in relation to the pandemic. Below are three.

Washington Post

Washington Post Media columnist Margaret Sullivan did a piece on the PIO/media relations controls on April 18. She cites my memories reporting on agencies over the last two to three decades: “Direct contact was minimized and tightly monitored. Interviews might take place with a public-relations ‘minder’ present.”

Sullivan also quotes First Amendment attorney Frank LoMonte asserting, “There’s a widespread misperception that you check all your free-speech rights at the door when you take a job,” speaking of both government and private corporations.

Columbia Journalism Review

A Columbia Journalism Review article connects the long history of these controls with current circumstances, with among other things, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention being terrifyingly absent from public view.

“Ultimately, the concern is the public’s ability to understand exactly where information is coming from and to judge its accuracy themselves, a process in which the media is intrinsically involved,” the article by Cinnamon Janzer says.

A side note: in the article the former CDC media person (1999-2013), Glen Nowak, indicates that during his tenure, in the absence of a public directory it was difficult for journalists to identify who in the agency to talk to.

He does not mention that going through the media relations office was forced on reporters, even when we were very versed in who we needed to talk to.

In addition, for years CDC had a 100-page directory of experts, listed by alphabetical order of expertise, with direct phone numbers and building locations. They handed it out to reporters.

I have a 1985 copy.

Clearing the FOG

“Clearing the FOG” radio producers interviewed me on the PIO/media relations controls. It aired on WBAI in early April. Available on podcast.

Here’s part of one of my responses: “The idea that without this access it’s harder to do ethical journalism is a point that I’m pushing right now very hard. Journalists talk about this a great deal among themselves. And that includes journalists from the most prominent news organizations. We’ve had whole sessions on it in journalism organizations, in journalism meetings. But somehow or other we don’t tell the public in any big way. Why is that? Maybe it’s because we don’t want to tarnish our own brand….We look at it as a problem and as an irritant to our work, but we can’t bring ourselves to even admit among ourselves that this is keeping stuff from us and from the public.”

Friday, April 3, 2020

Concerns about CDC's Quiet: Remember All the Censorship While We Got Ourselves into This Mess

The Knight Institute for the First Amendment at Columbia University has sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seeking release of information on policies restricting staff rights to speak to the press.

“Recent news stories indicate that the White House started requiring CDC scientists and health officials to coordinate with the Office of Vice President Mike Pence before speaking with members of the press or public about the pandemic,” says the Institute.

In addition, the Union of Concerned Scientists filed a letter with CDC saying the agencies’ experts should be able to speak directly to the public about the coronavirus pandemic.

“We at the Union of Concerned Scientists have noticed an ongoing pattern in the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic—scientists and public health officials from the CDC are no longer speaking directly to the public. No media interviews, no press briefings…just silence since early March.”

It’s horrifying that CDC is apparently on lockdown from speaking to the press or the public, now, when the agency is one of the most important entities on the globe.

It’s critical to understand, however, CDC has been on lockdown pretty much for anything other than the official story since late in the last century. And that was while the world was lurching toward this point of being unprepared for a pandemic.

All that time CDC, like many other federal agencies and other entities, has banned its staff from ever speaking to reporters without going through a public information office. A CDC justification is below.

The thing is, despite any justification, censorship induces horrors. CDC’s decades-old policy means no staff person is allowed to speak without oversight at the bosses’ behest. That often means there are whole universes of facts and perspectives the person being interviewed will not mention. Reporters may publish some really interesting stuff, but it often won’t be the things keeping the staff people up at night. What is hidden is constantly dangerous to public welfare and the constraints are of the same linage as China’s information control.

Beyond the mandate oversight, the reporters are often not allowed to speak to the people they request. Note below the CDC statement’s indication that the press officer can find the best spokesperson for the reporter. That means the press officer will also determine who the reporter will not talk to.

Those aspects of the controls are the most basic and they are quite enough to ensure deadly risks and corrosion, hidden indefinitely.

However, there is also the fact any normal level of contact is choked off by the permission-to-speak mandate itself. There are thousands of journalists and thousands of staff separated by that wall. For everybody’s welfare, they should be talking to each other. There is only one small opening in the wall, consisting of a few public information officers. Every contact must be assigned one of those chaperones. That alone, from the outset, kills most conversations that might have happened.

So, in this time when we are concerned that CDC is closed off, let’s be careful what we ask for. Be hyper-aware that if CDC begins making official statements again, prominently, there will still be those thousands of staff people who are, in effect, silenced.


This is on CDC’s website under frequently asked questions for reporters:
“Why is it necessary to go through a press officer when I want to talk with a CDC expert?

“Press officers are here to make sure your questions get answered by the best spokesperson for your story, within your deadline. CDC experts are working scientists and may not be available for interviews at all times. A press officer can help you find the best expert or spokesperson to answer your questions.”

Health News Review Gives Some Status and History of Media Policy Censorship

Health News Review gives some history and current events related to the censorship through media policies:

"It’s not a new issue with COVID-19 information. The Trump Administration is not the first to put up a wall blocking journalists. Many journalists were increasingly vocal about restrictions placed on them by the Obama administration.

"The history of restrictions on reporters trying to cover the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, the CDC, the EPA and other federal health agencies has not been researched thoroughly enough, and thus, it’s a story not told often enough or well enough. "

A quote from me; “I don’t think anything can be more dangerous than something the press will not talk about or does not understand as a danger,” she says. “It’s not ethical journalism to take information in a controlled setting and publish it without telling the public that this information control is going on. You are at high risk of being harmful to public welfare.”