Monday, July 7, 2014

Examples of Interference with Reporting

Surveys Show The Blockages

Surveys by Carolyn Carlson, assistant professor at Kennesaw State University, show that 40 percent of PIOs admit to blocking reporter when the PIOS have had “problems” with their stories. The surveys also show that most reporters dealing with federal issues believe the restraints are censorship.

Her 2014 surveys found that across the country political and general assignment reporters see the restraints on reporting as increasing in recent years and say the current level of media control is an impediment to getting information to the public.

Her report on political and general reporters includes 26 pages of anecdotes of control, such as:

“A few years ago, top officials for a city government I covered told staff members they were not to talk with me. Myself and another reporter had exposed a corrupt nonprofit housing agency and mismanagement of millions of dollars in federal housing funds the city had received. Our editors and I complained about the situation, we filed numerous public records requests for the information we were
seeking, and eventually the city relaxed the restrictions. The department manager over the city’s housing programs never agreed to interviews with me again.”

Similar anecdotes are in Carlson’s report on education reporters.

Native American Journalists and Department of Interior

As journalists who cover Indian Country, we know very well the hurdles journalists can face in seeking public information when there are policies such as the ones described in [the letter the President Obama] in place. The Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Department of Interior has conducted business this way for years, and I personally believe it has hurt our tribal communities and our community members’ access to information.
--Mary Hudetz, President, Native American Journalists Association, July 2014

EPA Working to Promote the President’s Agenda

SEJ leaders held a conference call with EPA’s public affairs chief Tom Reynolds June 25, hoping to advance the case for more open EPA media policies and procedures. While Reynolds said he would try to improve EPA’s performance, he did not commit to specifics and defended a practice that SEJ members have complained about.

While espousing better public information for the US public via the press, Reynolds also acknowledged that “we are working to promote and advance the agenda of the president and the administrator.”

SEJ leaders asked Reynolds why the agency needed to do a background briefing where briefers could not be identified during the recent rollout of EPA’s carbon rule, and Reynolds said one main reason was to keep focus on the agency's administrator, Gina McCarthy.


“SEJ leaders were not satisfied with Reynolds’ answers, and they asked what harm would come from opening briefings up…..

[Reporter] Don Hopey pointed to the practical problems the background briefing had caused in producing his own story. His editors would not accept unattributed information, and he spent considerable time overcoming their objections. He said the small amount of information he used from the briefing barely justified the extra time it cost him.

Reynolds defended background briefings by saying they were “standard practice across this administration and in others” and that “they are done regularly and routinely by the White House and other agencies.”  He said “top tier media -- AP, Reuters, New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal -- all use background sourcing in their reporting.”

SEJ had complained about EPA’s refusal to identify sources in a June 2 briefing, which supplemented on-record speeches and interviews about the carbon rule. Links to the exchange of letters between SEJ and EPA are on the SEJ website.


“We are trying to do better,” Reynolds told SEJ leaders. “I will work -- we will work -- to do more to ensure there are on the record opportunities for outlets.” Reynolds did not go farther than that or make specific commitments on press office openness, however, noting that the agency made those decisions on, “a case by case basis.”
--Joe Davis, Society of Environmental Journalists, June 2014

ICD-10 Experts Can’t Talk

In December a New York Times reporter emailed CMS asking to talk to someone about the coming implementation of ICD-10.

He was never allowed to speak to anyone.
I asked CMS why, related to an article I was doing. Over about eight contacts over a month, the public affairs officer did not answer me. Sometimes there was no answer at all. Sometimes she said the NYT reporter had been given a written statement. Written statements in no way substitute for talking to an expert.
I referred the matter to the main HHS public affairs office and that did not help.
ICD-10 will have impact on the whole public and HHS agencies have staff members who have long worked on it and are at the center of information about it.
--Kathryn Foxhall, July 2014

Staff Silenced at EPA

For years EPA has not allowed reporters to speak to staff without the public information offices overseeing the contact. Last fall it was revealed that a top EPA official had fooled the agency into thinking he was off doing work for the CIA when he was doing whatever he wished, for 13 years. An executive assistant had suspected, but reporters no longer have access to the facilities that might allow them to get to know staff. And all staff are specifically prohibited from communicating with journalists without oversight on behalf of the bosses.

Lack of Response at the Veterans Administration

In 2012, prior to the current revelations about the Veterans Administration, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs began a compilation of news reports that stated the VA did not respond to reporters. The list is now up to dozens of instances.

PIO of the Homeland Security

At a debate the National Press Club in August 2014, a public information officer for the Department of Homeland Security argued for the agencies’ policies of forcing reporters to go through press officers. He said that he worked to get the news out to reporters and when there was bad news the agency got it out quickly, rather than keeping it hidden.
A few weeks later the federal Office of Special Counsel said that there had been profound and entrenched abuse of overtime at the agency, based on the testimony of seven whistleblowers.
--Kathryn Foxhall, July 2014

Major Scientist Can’t Talk

The New York Times did a profile of John Holdren, the White House Science Advisor, July 4, 2014. The article stated the White House declined to make Holdren available to be interviewed. One of the most prominent scientists in the country is prohibited to speak without political control.

One Conversation Is Enough

A PIO at FDA told me I did not need to talk to an expert at the agency on pediatric drug research because I had already talked to one other expert at another agency.
--Kathryn Foxhall, July 2014

Limit Speech to Whistleblowers

A reporter filed a petition challenging the rule forcing reporters to go through the press office at FDA. The denial of the petition, which came after four years, says, among other things, that if FDA employees have anything to say they can become public whistleblowers.
--Kathryn Foxhall, July 2014

EPA: Only Senior Management Can Talk

I spoke with EPA's media relations director, George Hull, on Thursday and Friday (June 26-27, 2014) after several days of trying to get clarification about a few technical details regarding state CO2 emissions cuts goals in the Clean Power Plan. First, I sent emails and made calls to Julia Valentine and Hull at the EPA on Wednesday. Though Valentine more than a week earlier promised me answers regarding the unrelated Indian Country Minor New Source Review Program by last week, when I followed up with her Wednesday about that and to ask additional questions about the Clean Power Plan, her email said she was out on extended leave. Hull did not respond on Wednesday, and as of Friday, after about two weeks of trying, I still have no response on my Indian Country questions. 

Hull responded on Thursday, and I was promised answers that day, but by 6 p.m., Hull said he had nothing, but I could talk to an expert on the phone early Friday morning. I called him at 9 a.m. Friday, and he said he’d have several officials willing to answer specific questions shortly. Then he said, “this is gonna be on background.” I said, nope. I'm not speaking to anybody on background. Hull uttered a surprised “Oh!” then hung up and called me back a few minutes later and to tell me that only senior management at the EPA can go on the record with a reporter, and senior management isn’t available today. Maybe next week, he said. 

I told him speaking on background for a story he knows has to run today is wasting my time and it contributes nothing to my story, and I won’t to do it. I said I’m going to note in my story that the EPA refused to provide answers on the record and that the EPA won't comment. 

“I'll have to see what I can do and get back to you,” he said. A short while later, he called back and said he’ll send me a canned statement from PA acting assistant administrator Janet McCabe and can’t do much else for me right now.

---Bobby Magill, senior science writer covering energy and climate change for Climate Central

Hidden Newborn Circumcision Experts

I asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow me to speak to its experts on newborn circumcision 20 times over five weeks. I had identified three experts who had been key to the agency’s work on the issue. CDC wanted me to speak only to a public relations person and never allowed me to speak to anyone else. I declined to speak to the PR person. I put out a press release on the issue.

--Kathryn Foxhall

HHS Not Talking about Not Talking

Neiman Reports recently did an article on blockages that public health reporters are finding at public agencies. Health and Human Services would not do an interview with the reporter. A public affairs person wrote a statement instead.

Sent Back to The Stonewall at CDC

As chronicled in the Neiman Reports article, in the midst of the January 2014 chemical spill in West Virginia reporters repeatedly asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention how it calculated acceptable toxicity levels. After nearly a week one reporter called the CDC director at home. “The CDC chief told him to contact the press office and hung up,” according to the article.

Fear of Speaking editor Bruce Ritchie says that a wetlands expert at the Florida Department of Environment Protection left a social gathering to avoid speaking to him. The department has a “protocol” in which employees contacted by reporters are to refer them to press officers.

A number of similar stories on being blocked are at:

HHS Ethics Office Won’t Talk

The Office of Human Research Protections is working on one of the most important medical research ethics questions in years, having to do with what parents are told about research on their newborns. Last fall I called to speak to someone to get an update and was not allowed to talk to anyone at all.

The PIO said, “OHRP has not been giving interviews on the topic, other than to say it is working on the draft guidance. It has not set a deadline for issuing the guidance.”
So we don’t know who OHRP is talking to, if anyone.
Forty-two years ago the nation discovered the US Public Health Service had experimented on 399 African American men by not treating them for syphilis and not telling them what was happening. Government officials continued the Tuskegee experiment until the Associated Press, tipped off by a former employee, covered the story. The incident became the basis of many of the medical research ethics standards, continuing until today.
Ironically, now government ethics officials are specifically blocking the press from speaking people who might tell them what is happening.
---Kathryn Foxhall, 2014

Opacity on Clinical Trials Transparency

Five years after Congress had called for new rules on, the registry for medical studies, had not come out.

Last year I asked about the rules, to give my readers an update. What is happening? Who is the agency talking to, if anyone?

The Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health would not allow anyone to talk about the rules and became angry when I continued to ask. is meant to make medical research more transparent.   

--Kathryn Foxhall, July 2014