Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On Not Trusting the Official Story

Below is the presentation I made on PR Office Censorship to a panel session at the National Association Communicators Annual meeting.

I want to first thank NAGC for having this important and courageous panel.

The first thing I want to say is journalists fighting these restrictions don’t want to be in opposition to PAOs. 

--Because we need the tremendous help you give us.

--Because many of the agencies are amazing, unsung heroes and deserve much more recognition.

--Because I feel journalists are more responsible than PAOs for the unconscionable restrictions we are under.

--And because we want your help in resisting the situation, because we all live in this country.


About 20 years ago, at the federal level, some agencies started prohibiting staff from talking to reporters without going through the public information office. Over time the restrictions have become more widespread and aggressive. 

Built on top of that requirement are myriad constraints on newsgathering. Death by delay; monitoring conversations; refusals to allow reporters to speak to source people they have identified or to speak to anyone at all; etc.

This is the bottom line on why this is so destructive: ROUTINELY staff people tell us lots of solid, really important stuff when we talk to them away from official oversight, things that will not out come through the official avenues.

But when people speak when they are being tracked at the behest of the leadership, mostly they tell the official story. And that’s tragic. The official story is just one piece.
For some historical incidents:

Much of medical ethics today flows from 1972 when an “insider,” --a former federal employee-- had totally unauthorized conversations with an AP reporter about something he had known for years: the Public Health Service had been following the progress of syphilis for 40 years in 399 African American men without informing or treating them. The story turned the research world on its head.

And when jumbled graves were discovered at Arlington, gravediggers had known for years. 

When the Penn State sex abuse scandal broke, janitors had known for years. 

FDA staff members worried about compounding pharmacies long before people had fungus injected into their spines.

Gushing Rivers

There is always much that lies beneath. The press critically needs gushing rivers of unauthorized communications, confidential conversations, discussions the bosses would never, ever approve of, communications the leaders nor anyone else know about.
We need to talk to as many of the “wrong” people as we can cram into the day.

Without those communications, happening fluidly, reporters are perniciously naïve.

And yes, huge parts of those communications are going to be absolute hogwash. 

That’s why reporters need to use heavy skepticism and confirmation of everything.

Official Story

On the other hand, official information, or communication from people speaking under official control, is at least equally as risky.

There is no greater lesson from history than the fact it is massively irresponsible to just trust the official story. For journalists, one of the most unethical things we can do is to just trust.

That’s why we need to talk to people away from official controls.

Scott McClellan, spokesman for President Bush, said the country went to war in an atmosphere of the administration’s “spin, stonewalling, hedging, evasion, denial, noncommunication and deceit by omission.”

Look at the culture we’ve built in 20 years:

Millions of people prohibited from communicating with each other without reporting to the authorities. Thousands of workplaces and thousands of managers with the power to silence people. A whole culture inside agencies that “knows” it should aggressively control and suppress information-gathering. 

In recent times, CDC forbade a reporter’s interview with a key expert on one of the largest tuberculosis outbreaks in 20 years; HHS stopped a New York Times reporter from speaking with a staff psychologist about his allegations of massive child abuse on a Native American reservation; FDA stopped me from talking to a counterfeit drug expert because she “didn’t have anything else to say.” 

Doesn’t this sound like a country very different from the United States? 

All these incidents hide something from the public, because it’s unusual for a reporter to interview someone close to an issue and not get some kind of perspective.

Of course, the agencies had reasons. Someone hiding my car from me would have reasons. All the information belongs to the public.


 Censorship stops and manipulates the public’s understanding. It’s one of the most debilitating and corrupting things that can happen to a society.
Please think about the gravity of this. Because none of us knows what is silenced or skewed in all these agencies. And your loved one will get a drug, or will go into a hospital in situation, where staff has been quiet about something --- for years.

Thank you.

We would seriously like your suggestions on harmonizing both professions’ work with the First Amendment.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kathryn, I understood your points but I think that PR agencies are not too bad.

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