Wednesday, April 14, 2021

ACLU Chapter Using Speech Restrictions with Staff

We have known for some time that the bans at many agencies or groups on staff talking to the press without notifying the authorities are just about a cultural norm.

They seem to be everywhere. Surveys sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists have shown them to be pervasive in arenas including education, science, various levels of government and law enforcement.

In one of the strongest endorsements of censorship in the 21st Century, many news outlets have these restrictions on their staff.

But a chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union? Reporter Haisten Willis ran into that very thing in Georgia last year and now reports on it.

In a new twist on the restrictions, staff are apparently prohibited from giving journalist their business cards.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Biden's EPA Officials: Contact Between Reporters and Staff Still Banned without Controls

Will the Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency continue the bans on any contacts between reporters and staff without notification or oversight by authorities, such as public information officers?

Yes, was answer from the new EPA public affairs leaders in a March 18 Zoom session sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists. They also indicated that the agency will not force any staff members to talk to the press if they are not comfortable doing it.

Tim Wheeler, chair of the SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force, told the officials there was a time, “when EPA scientists and other staff were often, if not routinely, allowed to talk directly to reporters without needing to get press office permission or to have minders present to monitor the interview. Can we go back to that? If not, why not?”

Lindsay Hamilton, the new EPA Associate Administrator of Public Affairs, said she would debate the word “minder,” saying it is the role of the media relations professional to get the reporter connected to the right person, to facilitate that interview, to make sure the source people feel comfortable in talking to the journalist, to take notes, to occasionally flag time, and to follow up with the reporter.

Also at the session was Nick Conger, the new EPA Press Secretary.

Hamilton said, “We do, you know, look for coordination with the Office of Public Affairs, [when a reporter asks to speak to someone] because I think that in terms of ensuring that we’re having good, accurate information, that’s getting out into the public, I think there’s a role for us to play. And in coordinating that and for having a high level of awareness about how the agency’s communicating.”

At a later point Hamilton said, “We do ask for coordination and I don't want to deny that in any way. So, I do think that they expect that they are supposed to coordinate with the Office of Public Affairs.”

She further said, “If they're going to check in and say, ‘Hey, you know, we're talking to this reporter, have you heard about the story yet?’ That’s the kind of thing that’s like really standard to our day-to-day work. I certainly kind of hope that folks want to work with us, right?”

“My goal is to make it so that people want to coordinate with us because they know that the outcome is an interview situation which they're going to feel comfortable and confident and be able to deliver information in which EPA is delivering the best available experts, the best available information for that story,” Hamilton said.

Reporters Talking about Responses and Nonresponses

Journalists listening to the session sent questions and comments.

· One reporter said they got a written response on deadline from a scientist with her name attached and was “giddy.”

· Another reporter said they were denied a request for an interview but were told answers would come “by Friday.” It did not happen. The press office asked if it would be okay to get a response a few days later, but it had not come by the time of the session.

· Another said, “I contacted the regional office twice in the last two months by email. No answer.”

· Yet another reporter said, “EPA hasn't granted me an on-the-record interview since Obama was in office and even then it was a fight.”

Hamilton said they are trying to work through the deadlines coming at them all the time, but they would like to hear about these problems. She said there will be times the agency will ask to get back to the reporter in writing, rather than granting an interview, because that is how they need to share information.

Scientific Integrity Review Targeting These Questions

Wheeler noted that President Biden, in his mandate for a task force to review scientific integrity in the federal government, has called for identifying effective practices for engagement of Federal scientists with news media and on social media. Wheeler asked if that meant agency scientists and science advisory board members would need press office okay to talk to a reporter or to have a press office person present.

Hamilton said she did not know yet, but there would be more coming on the topic soon.

Lack of Written Policy on the Controls

Asked if there is a written policy on when scientists will be available to reporters, Hamilton said that there has been broad guidance saying, “Please coordinate communications with the Office of Public Affairs.” However, she said she was not aware of any further prescriptive policy.

Permission to Speak at Sessions

Wheeler noted that in prior times a reporter could walk up to a scientist at a meeting or a press conference, speak to them and get answers on the spot. He asked if that will be possible under this administration.

Hamilton said, “They are in an on-the-record situation already. So, yeah. Absolutely.”

She added, “I will say sometimes if I'm a press person who's onsite, I will sometimes go and join a conversation like that, in part to make sure I know who the reporter is, where they're from.”

“We do like to know what people are saying about the agency to see the coverage that results in the things were are doing,” she said.

Federal Agency Coordination on Interview Policies

Bobby Magill, an SEJ board member asked, “How much coordination is there amongst federal agencies on press strategy, especially regarding press officers responding to reporter inquiries and granting reporters, access to agency staff?”

Conger answered, “Yes, we are coordinating. We do a weekly call with other agencies that kind of touch the same issues that we do….But we are in regular close coordination with our counterparts at other agencies.”

He also said, “This is very much coming down from the top, from the White House in terms of the transparency and the access, the professionalism and civility that we have committed to restoring in terms of our interactions with the press corps.”

Appointment and Visitor Logs

The officials were asked if the appointment and visitor logs of the administrator and other top EPA officials be made public? Hamilton said it was the first time she had been asked that, but she would look into it.

Staff Just Don’t Have to Answer

Wheeler said some reporters say they have tried to speak to scientists in the pesticide division and had been denied interviews. He asked if the officials could commit to allowing those interviews.

Hamilton said she would look into it, but every interview is individual.

“There are going to be people who don't want to talk to the media and we are not going to make them. We will certainly try to get you information, but it doesn't mean that every person is going to be comfortable with always giving interviews to the media.”

She added, “We tend to be pretty respectful of people’s wishes and how they use their time and how they use their voice.”

She said, “Obviously we want to give you access to their information, their publications, answers to your questions, but it doesn't mean that everyone we work with is always comfortable with doing an interview in every situation themselves.”

“If it's things that then will kind of lead into things that are in process….it might be premature to give interviews sometimes,” Hamilton said.

Conger said, in regard to issues in the past, “The idea that a scientist can’t talk because what he or she might say is contrary to the political decisions, that’s something that we’re mindful of. That was a problem. And we're serious about addressing moving forward.”

A reporter told the officials that staff people have spent years being punished for talking directly to the press. The attitude of avoiding the media is going to be tough to shift, the indication was.

Hamilton said she understood the concern and would be working with career employees and others.

Public Affairs Contacts

In response to one request Hamilton said the agency intended to quickly put online the list of press office contacts.

Mandated Anonymous Spokespersons

Wheeler asked, in cases when reporters do get answers from the press office, “Can we do away with the all-too-common practice of being told to attribute that information to an anonymous spokesperson?”

Conger said, in general, yes. However, he said, “We have learned that there are some folks who don't feel comfortable having their names associated with the statements. And that’s in part because it's not their information. They're getting it from three or four or five different people from across the EPA. And sometimes they don't feel like it’s actually coming from them. Sometimes they don't feel comfortable associating their name with that topic area….Sometimes it can be very political in nature. So we are hearing them out.”

He said, however, there are two political lead public affairs officers, Hamilton and himself: “So if it’s of a concern to a reporter….I think we're generally deferring….to putting our names against the statement.”

Hamilton said it was something she would like to hear more about: “I'm not quite sure what the differentiation is so long as it’s a spokesperson or a spokesperson with a name.”


Thursday, April 1, 2021

Where Are We in History When the Communications Controllers Block Reporting on Themselves?

The Federal Communications Commission is holding “sharply reduced and fewer public press briefings” reflecting, “a decades long and gradual reduction in availability in commission officials to reporters,” says a recent report in Communications Daily.

The article notes: “When the chair speaks with journalists as a group, reporters are barred from asking more than one question or asking a follow-up query.”

FCC regulates interstate and international communications through cable, radio, television, satellite and wire.

Its website states it is, “responsible for managing and licensing the electromagnetic spectrum for commercial users and for non-commercial users including: state, county and local governments. This includes public safety, commercial and non-commercial fixed and mobile wireless services, broadcast television and radio, satellite and other services. In licensing the spectrum, the Commission promotes efficient and reliable access to the spectrum for a variety of innovative uses as well as promotes public safety and emergency response.”

Recent issues the agency has dealt with include net neutrality; preventing tech companies for putting users’ privacy at risk; ensuring schools access to internet services; and national security threats from technology companies of other countries.

FCC’s Lifeline program provides discounts for phone and internet service for low-income consumers.

The authors of the Communications Daily report say, “Starting under the George W. Bush administration, most FCC officials say they cannot answer reporters’ questions –- even off the record -– without involving officials from the agency who are mainly political appointees and who handle public relations. FCC PR people rarely allow such interviews.”

My summary of this: Like so many other public agencies around the nation, the FCC first created a choke point through which all newsgathering must be done. Then it eliminated most scrutiny of the agency by the press, since journalists have no alternative avenues. The public is getting a lot of officially controlled information and isn’t informed that serious reporting on the agency is not allowed.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

All the Facilities Media Can't Enter, But Don't Mention

To Erik Wemple
Media Reporter
The Washington Post


We, the media, are galloping insane.

The media report they can’t get into the facilities for child migrants on the border.

We also, by and large, can’t get into the Department of Health and Human Services building, sitting within sight of the Capitol. That is where many policies or orders--humane, inhumane or indefensible--are formed or are known about, at least. Those include policies about child migrants.

The same is true of many other federal agencies.

The media can’t contact people in HHS or other agencies—by written policy—without oversight by the authorities, often through the public information office.

In reality, the media often can’t speak to people they request at all.

In unknown confabs, in these agencies we aren’t in and can’t get to know anybody in, decisions are made about who in the media may talk to someone.

The same has been true for years, including the time building up to the 2018 policy separating children from families.

The media wait until there is a humanitarian wreck at the border to prove how protective we are of the free press.

HHS,, still sit here in Washington, still locked up.

The media are misleading and negligent.

Kathryn Foxhall

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Press Wasn't Really There. And Still Isn't.

The following column was drafted by me and offered by the Society of Professional Journalists as content during Sunshine Week. At least 14 news outlets around the country picked it up.

INDIANAPOLIS — For many years before the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists “weren’t there,” to a huge extent, in terms of reporting on the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The controls keeping them out continue.

Reporters cannot enter the facilities except under controlled circumstances like official meetings. There are no credentials to allow reporters to enter, although journalists could be vetted as easily as the thousands of employees are. The rules force reporters to go through public information offices to seek permission to speak to anyone. In reality, reporters are often never allowed to speak to the people they want at all.

Last year Donald McNeil, Jr., then a New York Times reporter, said that even under the Obama administration CDC had to clear anything important through its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. But under the Trump administration, he said, “If you don’t talk to people off the record, you don’t talk to anyone because nobody is being allowed to say anything on the record,” unless it is cleared through various layers, sometimes including the White House.

Having a former New York Times reporter confirm it is good, because many other reporters say the same.

Christina Jewett won awards for her 2019 Kaiser Health News series that found FDA had for nearly 20 years, “let medical device companies file reports of injuries and malfunctions outside a widely scrutinized public database, which leave doctors and medical sleuths in the dark.” Over the six months she worked on the story, FDA never allowed Jewett to speak to a subject matter expert. She built the story through Freedom of Information Act-obtained documents and interviews with people outside the agency.

In the first months of the pandemic after CDC had already made stumbles that cost lives, a CDC official made it plain how things work, telling the agency’s media staff, “Just because there are outstanding [press] requests or folks keep getting asked to do a particular interview does not mean it has to be fulfilled.”

I have harsh questions for the press: Why, with tens of thousands of people in these institutions silenced, do we believe we are getting even half the story? Why are we implying that the public should entrust millions of lives to agencies when it is impossible to really know them? Why do we trust authorities who use their power to control public scrutiny of themselves?

Understand, among other things, reporters have heard for years the tales of behind-the-scenes controls, limitations on what may be discussed, and the “slow-rolling” that happens after a reporter makes a plea to speak to someone.

For the 25 to 30 years that these controls have surged, starting with the restrictions against employees speaking to journalists without oversight, news outlets have said little about them, certainly not explaining them in each article they impact. We cling to our traditional work ethic that says people will always try to stop us and good reporters get the story anyway.

Frequently, the reality is somewhat the reverse: journalists get stuff — some of it quite impressive, mind you — and then we deem whatever we get to be THE story.

Despite journalists’ dictum that skepticism is critical to our work, we have our own conflict of interest with being too skeptical: we need to publish stories and they need to be credible. So when FDA or CDC, with all their authority, pushes out a briefing or statement or allows an interview, that is a valuable resource to us. We want to publish it, basically. We don’t want to think about the fact that all the staff around that situation is silenced, so who can know what the real story is? We certainly don’t want to explain that to our audiences.

We also don’t want to contemplate the likelihood that if the authorities did not block us from walking around or calling around the agency, someone would tip us off to important stories that currently go unmentioned.

FDA and CDC happen to be salient, frightening examples at this moment.

In reality, the controls on reporters talking to people and doing newsgathering have become a pervasive norm through our culture. The Society of Professional Journalists did seven surveys (2012–2016) that show the restrictions have become common and often intense in federal, state and local governments, in education and science, and in police departments. One local editor told me last fall that the PIO system, along with the lack of resources, has been the death of local journalism. Other editors just said the controls have become much tighter over the years.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on March 1 that Chester County, Pennsylvania, has written into its ethics code prohibitions against employees speaking about almost anything related to their job to anybody, including friends, family or press. Later coverage said the officials, after being criticized, planned to modify the policy, but still leave it restrictive.

This deep, long term trend is a recipe for corrosion, perhaps related to or underlying the general decline in democracy. Journalists are morally obligated to find ways to oppose it. The first way, of course, is to explain it to the public, just like any other corruption, and to report on it repeatedly as it continues to be a factor.

It’s also imperative that we fight these restrictions on the policy level, for the sake of protecting people. Frank LoMonte, head of the Brechner Center, says journalists can fight the restrictions in court. We also need to continuously tell legislators and other policymakers that the controls are making us all subordinate to insiders.

There are, after all, grave consequences to the press not being allowed in the CDC, FDA or other entities that impact the public.

Friday, February 26, 2021

CDC Should End Censorship on Journalists, Says D.C. Chapter of SPJ

The following release went out from the Washington, D.C. Chapter from the Society of Professional Journalists this afternoon:

 The SPJ DC Pro Chapter wrote Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying restrictions on staff speaking to reporters without notifying authorities amount to a human rights abuse, withholding critical perspective from the public and from health professionals. In the case of the national emergency created by the COVID-19 pandemic, restricting journalists' access to vital information collected for the public has cost lives unnecessarily and has created untold health consequences for many of those who have managed to survive.

 The practice of prohibiting employees from speaking to reporters, or prohibiting such contact without oversight by authorities, has become widespread in public and private entities. Coalitions of over 60 groups have opposed the restrictions in letters to the Obama and Trump administrations and to Congress. An analysis by First Amendment attorney Frank LoMonte says that the controls are unconstitutional and that many courts have said that.

 Randy Showstack, president of the SPJ DC Pro Chapter, said, “The practice of agencies closing doors and gagging people from speaking to the press has become an unfortunate cultural norm. The controls are just as dangerous as censorship is in the rest of the world.”

 At least four major organizations have asked President Joe Biden to end the restrictions in federal agencies. The Society of Professional Journalists, parent to the SPJ DC Pro Chapter, has told President Biden that it is negligence to expect that agencies that control public scrutiny of themselves will not develop critical weaknesses.

 The full letter to Dr. Walensky, along with resources, is below. 



Dr. Rochelle Walensky
Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

 Dr. Walensky:

Congratulations on your appointment as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We appreciate the great challenges you face.

We are local leaders in an organization of journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, dedicated to seeking truth and reporting it in an ethical manner. We are writing you today to ask that you end the CDC’s practice of censoring journalists trying to speak with agency staff about vital information they have collected, paid for by taxpayers. It is a violation of human rights and medical ethics and a constant threat to public health.

 Censorship, which is control of information by people in power, has always been one of the deadliest and most corrosive phenomena in human civil society.

Over the last 25-30 years a cultural norm of heavy censorship has surged in this country with public and private entities banning employees and others from communicating with reporters without permission or oversight by authorities, often by using public information officers as gatekeepers.

The mandate to never have contact without going through the permission process creates a chokepoint for controlling information flow. Then additional barriers are piled on including massive delays, hidden limits on what staff people may say and, often, no permission to speak at all. The applications to speak often must go through multiple layers of clearance.

This has been an appallingly serious problem at CDC for many years, with numerous reporters complaining of serious difficulties in speaking to anyone or not being allowed to speak to anyone at all.

An illustration of how dangerously repressive attitudes inside agencies can become happened last year when CDC officials told media staff, “Just because there are outstanding [press] requests or folks keep getting asked to do a particular interview does not mean it has to be fulfilled.”

The SPJ, the largest broad-based organization of journalists in the United States has written to President Biden saying, “It is deep negligence to expect that agencies that control the public scrutiny of themselves will not develop critical weaknesses or that they will not be subjected to political interference.”

SPJ also says it believes the nation is suffering the consequences of these controls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are writing for the Washington, D.C., Pro Chapter of SPJ, a group with many years of experience reporting on the federal establishment.

Journalists are the eyes and ears of the public. It is not possible for the agency to have such restrictions on journalists without withholding a great deal of information that belongs to the public and is about things that impact people’s health.

Much of what we know about CDC in this pandemic has been obtained by good reporting with agency employees serving as confidential sources. The SPJ DC Pro Chapter takes pride in this work by the Fourth Estate. We also are forever grateful to agency employees who risk so much to give the public vital information.

And yet, those contacts were forbidden. And with 10,000-plus CDC employees working under harsh prohibitions to never speak to a reporter without notifying the authorities, we know there is a great deal not being said. That is a grave risk to everyone on earth.

Please note that an extensive analysis by First Amendment attorney Frank LoMonte, Director of the Brechner Center, says that the controls are unconstitutional. It also says many courts have said that they are.

He says, “Decades’ worth of First Amendment caselaw establishes that public employees have a constitutionally protected right to speak about work-related matters without needing their employer’s permission. Policies and regulations that require pre-approval before government employees can discuss their work with the news media are invariably struck down as unconstitutional when challenged. Still, agencies persist in enforcing rules curtailing public employees’ ability to share information with journalists.”

Resources and background information are below.

We hope to be able talk to you or your staff soon.


Randy Showstack
SPJ DC Pro Chapter

Kathryn Foxhall
Recording Secretary,
SPJ DC Pro Chapter
(202) 417 4572



The “Censorship by PIO” restrictions on reporters on the federal level began to be noticeable, as far as some journalists can tell, in the early to mid-1990s. Agencies and other offices banned federal staff from ever speaking to reporters without being overseen by the authorities, usually PIOs.

SPJ did seven surveys (2012–2016) that show the controls had become common and often intense on federal, state and local levels, in education and science, and--perhaps most chillingly--in police departments. (A summary is below.) Coalitions of journalism and open government groups wrote to the Obama and Trump administrations calling for an end to the constraints.

Representatives from a coalition of over 50 groups met with Obama White House officials in 2015.  We told press officer Josh Earnest that often when the press does not know something about agencies, the administration leaders don’t either. We were promised an answer and it never came.

For many years before the pandemic, reporters have not usually been able speak to anyone in CDC and FDA without involving the PIO/censors. Often reporters are completely blocked from speaking to the people they request or to anyone at all.


Resources on “Censorship by PIO”

 • SPJ’s website on the issue gives background. It includes the seven surveys SPJ sponsored from 2012-2016.

PROfficeCensorship: Kathryn Foxhall’s blog has stories and links on the issue.

In the Washington Post Margaret Sullivan’s column looked at the issue.

• A Columbia Journalism Review article connects the long history of these controls with current circumstances, such as the CDC being terrifyingly absent. 

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 minute 32.54.  The site includes a transcript.

• The Knight Institute at Columbia University released documents on CDC’s policies on employee speech.

 • On Oct. 17, 2019, the House Science Space and Technology Committee voted to kill proposed provisions that would have given federal scientists the right to speak to reporters without prior permission from the authorities in their agencies. Science Magazine reported on the mark-up. The vote shows how deep the cultural norm is.

• In its 2019 resolution on the issue, SPJ said the constraints are authoritarian and the public has a right to be dubious of statements from organizations in which employees can’t speak without guards.

• On Nov. 6, 2019, SPJ and 28 other journalism and open government groups sent a letter to every member of Congress calling for support of unimpeded communication with journalists for all federal employees.

Katherine Eban’s 2019 book “Bottle of Lies,” a jaw-dropping look at FDA failure, is on several “best books” lists. When the MedPage editorial (above) came out, Eban said this muzzling of government scientists was the reason it took 10 years to write the book.

• The book “Censored 2020,” published in 2019 has an article noting, “Everyone in those agencies is thus silenced today. So, if there are areas the FDA still didn’t clean up or if CDC staff are still playing games with anthrax, we likely won’t find out.” (attached)



CDC Tells Media: We Tell You Who to Talk To

Notice on the CDC Website: From FAQ 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.”



Media Relations Handbook for Government, Associations, Nonprofits and Elected Officials

The last edition listed is 2012.

 From the blub on Amazon:

By Bradford Fitch, Editor: Jack Holt. The Media Relations Handbook is called "the big blue book" on Capitol Hill.

From chapter nine:

About President George W. Bush’s team: “The key to the success was instilling a mentality (and fear) in the administration that information would flow only through approved channels.  From the campaign and into their installation in power, the Bush White House established a regimented communication policy—they built a wall that no leak could seep through.

Reporters decry these closed-mouth operations, as they often result in only the sanitized, organizationally endorsed message being released to the public. And sometimes this penchant for secrecy can lead to dangerous misjudgments and abuses of power. But public policy groups and public figures have a right to determine their own fate and to articulate their own messages



Summaries of SPJ Surveys and History

SPJ sponsored seven surveys (2012 to 2016) that showed the censorship is pervasive. Seven of 10 federal-level journalists said they consider the government controls over who they interview a form of censorship. Forty percent of federal PIOs admit to blocking specific reporters because of past “problems” with their stories. Seventy-eight percent of political and general assignment reporters at the state and local level say the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers to reporting.

Fifty-six percent of police reporters said rarely or never can they interview police officers without involving a PIO. Asked why they monitor interviews, some police PIOs said things like: “To ensure the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”

Almost half of science writers said they were blocked from interviewing agency employees in a timely manner at least sometimes. Fifty-seven percent said the public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers to reporting.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Biden Starts Scientific Integrity Review: Will He Keep the Censors on Feds?

President Joe Biden has issued a memorandum on scientific integrity calling for an interagency task force of the National Science and Technology Council to review the effectiveness of agency scientific integrity policies developed over the last 12 years. This builds on President Barack Obama’s scientific integrity memoranda of 2009 and 2010.

Among other things, the new task force is to identify “effective practices regarding engagement of Federal scientists….with news media and social media.”

These scientific integrity efforts in the federal government have a sordid history related to free press issues, one in which the political structure’s need for control has won out over the support for openness in science.

The censorship banning employees in federal agencies from speaking to journalists without the authorities’ oversight become widely apparent in federal agencies in the early 1990s, according to the experience of a number of journalists. The practice may migrated from the business sector. Over the next decade and a half the controls became progressively tighter and more pervasive.

The public was given no notice of this drastic limitation in the people’s right to know about their government. There was certainly no change to the Constitution. Agencies just started doing the restrictions. When reporters would call people in the agencies like they always had, suddenly those staff members said the reporter had to go through the public information office. Then there were more and more delays, problems with getting through and controls on the process.

But in 2009 President Obama had come into office saying he wanted to have the most transparent administration in history.

In early 2010 thirteen journalism organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Healthcare Journalists, sent a letter to the administration asking that the restrictions be ended.

That year President Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy was tasked with writing a scientific integrity policy.

Journalists were given reason to hope that document would eliminate the restrictions on reporters and people inside the government talking to each other. We worked with the Office of Science and Technology Policy behind the scenes, believing the new administration would see what a dark place these walls make of science in the federal government.

The memorandum from science advisor John Holdren came out on December 17, 2010. In true public relations fashion, it spoke of these restrictions, with their grave assault on free speech, as a positive: “Federal scientists may speak to the media and the public about scientific and technological matters based on their official work, with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office.”

The administration apparently couldn’t resist the power this growing cultural norm takes from the public and gives to the powerful.

The statement may well have been the highest level endorsement to that point of this trend toward “Censorship through Public Information Office.” It took from public the right to hear what federal scientists are doing, and gave back just a little, under highly controlled circumstances.

The next March the AHCJ and SPJ presidents wrote in a Washington Post editorial: “Meanwhile, reporters’ questions often go unanswered. When replies are given, they frequently are more scripted than meaningful. Public employees generally are required to obtain permission to share their expertise, and when interviews are allowed, a media ‘handler’ is listening in to keep control over what is said.”

The controls continued to grow stronger.

Last spring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after fending off much reporting for many years, was telling its media staff to remember that just because reporters ask for interviews doesn’t mean they have to be allowed to talk to people. This after the agency had made deadly missteps as the pandemic built.

Now, in addition to the review wthin the Biden administration, the previously proposed Scientific Integrity Act, sponsored by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) addressing some of the same issues, will likely be introduced again shortly.

Journalists will be there to testify to this abuse.