Reporters talked openly at a session this week at the National Press Club about federal agencies’ manipulation of the message and their simple lack of responsiveness to reporters, as well as journalists’ fear of retaliation from agencies.
Current rules at many agencies force reporters to get permission from agency public information officers before speaking to any staff person.
In the midst of the panel discussion, an empty chair came in for harassment from reporters using it as a symbol of the absence of any administration official at that gathering which was focused on openness in the Obama administration.
Curtis Brainard, the session organizer and Columbia Journalism Review science editor, said he emailed and called administration officials dozens of times over six weeks asking that agencies have someone at the session. He contacted the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, he said, and made a last ditch plea to the White House. He received only declines.
All those entities are within blocks of the Press Club. HHS, at the behest of OSTP, had very recently put in place a media policy institutionalizing the long-standing prohibitions against reporters and staff members speaking to each other without the PIO tracking.
The session, which featured six reporters and journalism advocates as panelists, was a spinoff of the CJR’s recent piece on transparency in this administration. Brainard said the CJR had heard complaints from every corner of the science writing realm about lack of government openness.
Joe Davis, an editor with the Society of Environmental Journalists, said the absence, “Says a lot about what is going on today and suggests that the people who are unhappy with the current administration’s policies aren’t just imagining things,” adding he doesn’t believe the problem is either is a Republican or Democrat issue.
Despite the unused seat for an administration panelist, there were several public information officers from federal agencies in the audience of about 50 people.
Slow Response, No Response
Much of the session focused on agencies’ slow response or nonresponse to reporters’ requests for interviews or information. Felice Freyer, a medical writer at the Providence Journal and chair of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know committee, said that for a reporter from outside the Washington Beltway calling press offices is often like “dropping a stone into a deep, deep well. Nothing happens. You don’t even hear it land.”
She noted that often reporters say agencies answer a week later or never. Many times, she said, reporters ask for an interview, but all they get is a statement from the press office.
Freyer did comment that AHCJ has had talks with HHS Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Richard Sorian on the issue and feedback from a few reporters has indicated some faster contacts.
Nancy Shute, a freelance writer and president of the National Association of Science Writers, said it seems with every new administration NASW goes back over this issue: “And I think that a lot of us may have thought that when the Obama Administration came in, with this big push for transparency….that this would make it easier for all of us to do our jobs. And I think we quickly realized how naïve we were.”
HHS scientists tell reporters who contact them that they have to get clearance through HHS, she said. And then days and weeks go by.
“I’m not talking about controversy. I’m not talking about politically fraught issues. I’m talking about good, solid science that was financed with our taxpayers’ dollars and that we journalists are just unable to cover.”
NASW wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this summer, Shute noted, saying the mandate that reporters get preclearance to speak to staff members was hampering their “ability to fully and properly cover the activities of HHS.”
The association has heard nothing back from the agency, she said.
Freyer of AHCJ said some reporters from outside Washington have told her, “Oh, I don’t even bother to call Washington, because I don’t have the time. I have a deadline. I can’t wait three weeks for them to get back to me.”
She encourages them to never give up, to call, email and call again and to track what went on with the interaction.
Davis of SEJ noted that EPA apparently has about 20 press officers and it should be able to get back to a reporter within 20 minutes.
When an answer takes a long time, he said, “either it’s being ignored because everyone is out to lunch; I don’t altogether believe that. Or it’s going up the chain politically and people are checking off to see if this is sensitive and what should we say or not say.”
Shute said when a reporter calls an institute about a paper a scientist has published, “Instead of the press office there being able to arrange an interview quickly, the review goes downtown to the main HHS office and it goes into this black hole for something that should never require that level of review.”
The multilevel review impedes the reporting, she said, but, “It also raises the real question of, you know, why is the political office involved? What kind of political decisions are being made over the fact that I did or did not get that interview?”
Schute said she had an interview on vaccines with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official. But when the interview was taped the official had been so “media managed by whomever that what the person said was unusable on the air.”
Speaking of some agencies’ practices of having a PIO listen in on an interview, Davis said, “Sometimes the minder is optional and sometimes the minder is mandatory. Sometimes the minder is there to help the scientist and sometimes they are there to help the agency. And even, once in a while, to help the reporter.”
“So the big worry, to put it bluntly, is intimidation. That having a minder in the room and monitoring every word keeps the interviewee silent and puts fear into the interviewee that retaliation will occur if the wrong thing is said,” he noted.
Davis also said, “I heard examples second hand in the last month or two of EPA scientists being told by the minders, ‘Oh, well, you can’t answer that question.’ And that is not new, but it’s not better either.”
Fear of Retaliation against Reporters
Retaliation against reporters is also on the minds of some journalists. Moderator Seth Borenstein, Associated Press national science reporter said, indeed, one reporter who had asked to be on the panel declined, “for fear of, for lack of better words, annoying too much the people this person has to rely on. And there is that balance. You don’t want to close all doors by complaining too much.”
Davis added, “I think agencies use the fear of retribution as a way of manipulating especially the smaller potato reporters, the ones outside the Beltway, the smaller publications.”
“But what I have found is that the big-time reporters get preferred advance briefings anyway, because they are the ones that reach the biggest audience. And when they break these rules about going behind the press offices’ back, they are not punished. They are rewarded with more advanced briefings,” he said.
Is It Getting Worse?
Borenstein said getting direct access to federal employees has been an issue for several administrations. However, at NASA, he asserted, “They are still pretty good, but one or two things are happening now that weren’t happening before, in terms of direct access the people.”
He said that now when he calls, suddenly staff members can’t talk without going through the public affairs office.
Freyer said, “I think that you would be hard pressed to find a reporter who hasn’t had difficulty getting through to an expert, but it isn’t something that has suddenly happened. It has been going on for a long time.”
Noting that news stories had said the Obama presidential campaign had been tightly message controlled, she said she guessed that has carried over to the administration: “The media officials want to know who is saying what to the media.”
Her concern, Freyer said, is “that it may be applied just too broadly to things that aren’t political or controversial.”
In the 1990s, she noted, she was doing a story on a breast cancer patient who wanted a bone marrow transplant and her insurance company would not pay for it. The National Cancer Institute quickly arranged an interview with a breast cancer researcher who said the transplant would not help. It greatly enhanced the story’s perspective, she said, but that kind of interview has gotten increasingly difficult.
Shute said, “I do think we see this really disturbing trend towards a much greater desire for top down control of interactions with all aspects of an organization with the media.”
“It used to be that it was just the political Schedule C policy types that had to worry about that. But I think what we are seeing now in some agencies is a systematic effort to push down and really control access to federal workers who are dealing with just every day, daily science.”
Brainard of CJR said another complaint is that officials have touted the administration’s release of data as an indication of openness, but, “Data does not speak for itself. It just never speaks for itself. You want to talk to the people who have collected the data, who are responsible for analyzing the data and implementing it in some way.”
The reporters also noted that journalists are able to walk the halls of Congress and talk to members of Congress and others there, something that is not allowed in the agencies.
How Long Has This Been Going On?
Brainard said a number of reporters feel the system of forcing reporters to go through minders may have started in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, but, “One administration lays the foundation for turning the screws for the next one. It just becomes easier and easier through successive administrations.”
Davis said, “It has not been that way forever, but it’s been that way longer than we admit.”
Comparing the U.S. to Other Countries
Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of the international group Reporters without Borders, said she would tell her audience about this U.S. concern. She noted that her organization compiles a yearly ranking of 178 nations in terms of their press freedom. The U.S. ranks 20th.
“That is not first, but that is good,” she commented.
A number of European nations and Japan rank above the U.S. on that list.
However, she did say that one of the main concerns her group has with the United States is definitely the lack of access to information.
The panelists were asked to rank the current administration and the agencies they deal. The scale imagined was one where the former Soviet Union ranked one and Denmark -- which Reporters Without Borders ranks high -- ranked 10. Brainard said 5.5. Davis of SEJ gave it a 6 or 7. And Shute ranked it as a 4, “based on the fact that we are, in fact, the United States of America….We can do a lot better.”
What Should PIOs Do?
Asked what PIOs can do in the future, Fryer said that, for one thing, PIOs should not answer a reporter with an email asking for the reporters’ questions. That includes, she said, asking the reporters to send their questions and then sending one sentence answers.
Shute agreed, saying, “You can’t ask a question of the person if it’s only an email and that is not a real conversation. And it’s pernicious. It’s not real speech. It’s not a real conversation. And I think that it is always poor quality information.”
Freyer also said PIOs should not be directing what the reporter is doing or assuming things about the reporting. She said she has had intrusive questions, such as, “So what is your slant?”
Brainard of CJR said that given the wild world of new media today it helps if agencies “have a sort of triage system in place, so your press officers can quickly filter requests coming in from various types of media outlets. This is something that is really frustrating a lot of the public affairs officers that I talked to.”
He said PIOs often can’t make heads or tails of who is calling because there are so many blogs and new media sites popping up on an almost weekly basis.
“I don’t mean that there should be a policy in place that somehow excludes bloggers or new media entrepreneurs,” he said.
In fact the policy, he stressed, “has to figure out a good way to include them, while at the same time, when necessary, giving some priority to larger outlets. Clearly the government wants to work with those outlets that are going to reach” the largest number of people.
“And that is totally reasonable.”
Background When It Should Not Be Background
One member of the webcast audience asked if perhaps reporters make things worse by accepting briefings from officials, “on background” or from unnamed flacks.
Borenstein asked about cases of “PA officials whose job it is to speak for a government agency, but think that they cannot give their names. What do we do with that?” Panel members indicated the answer varies according to the situation.
In answer to the question about whether reporters just whine too much, Davis said, “You say ‘whine’ like it’s a bad thing….It is our job to be aggressive and complain a lot for the people who aren’t complaining.”
Comment from KF: The session did not directly address some free speech questions, including, why should any United States government entity prohibit journalists from speaking to staff members without reporting to the authorities? Why can’t reporters hear both the agency’s coordinated message as well the uncoordinated message from any staff member and decide what to follow up on? Isn’t it about two people talking about the public’s business? Why can’t reporters speak to staff in the same unhindered way other people do, including special interests?
What does it do to the reporting when reporters can never speak to staff unless the agency is tracking who speaks to whom? Given the political oversight and message manipulation that we do see, is there any doubt that there is a much we don’t see, hidden by PIOs surveillance? What is journalists’ responsibility to our audiences in going along with this system?