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.

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