Such neglect has real-world consequences. Around the same time, Freyer was working on a story for The Providence Journal, where she’s been the medical reporter since 1989. Ten percent of the obstetrician-gynecologists in Rhode Island had admitted to inserting a type of intrauterine device (iud), a form of birth control, into hundreds of women, which had not been approved by the FDA for use in the United States and which they’d obtained illegally at discount prices from foreign sources. The FDA launched an investigation, about which Freyer had questions. Unsure which press officer to approach, she filled out the “Timely Response E-mail Form” on the agency’s website. Several hours passed with no response, so she called and spoke with a press officer. He suggested that Freyer e-mail her questions to him, which she did. Nothing. When she called again two days later, the press officer said he was waiting for a response from his superiors. He suggested that she resubmit her questions for a third time. She did, to no effect. Several more days passed and she sent yet another e-mail asking if she could expect answers, and if not, why. “At this point, all we can say is that the FDA is continuing to look into these cases,” the press officer replied.
Freyer recounted the saga in an online article for the AHCJ:
I published my story, stating that the FDA had declined to answer any questions. Four days later, the FDA posted a ‘consumer update’ on its website referring to the Rhode Island controversy and warning consumers against iuds. . . . It turned out the fda’s position was not the ‘No comment’ I received. The agency had quite a lot to say on the matter, but had declined to say it in the newspaper serving the hundreds of women throughout Rhode Island who were distressed and frightened by the IUD incident. They deserved better from the agency that was supposed to be protecting them.
Freyer e-mailed the press officer with whom she’d corresponded as well as the fda’s chief press officer to ask what had happened. When neither replied, she e-mailed Backus at HHS, who finally got the FDA to apologize for its unresponsiveness and promise to do better. Backus was replaced shortly thereafter, however. As Freyer put it, the association had to “start all over again,” and transparency problems have continued under Backus’s successor, Richard Sorian.
At the beginning of 2011, for instance, the FDA stunned reporters while announcing changes to its medical-device approval process. The announcement was under embargo and the agency’s press officers barred journalists seeking outside comment from sharing information about the changes with experts until the embargo lifted. The association wrote a letter of protest, pointing out that the prohibition “rewrote a long-standing compact between reporters and various public and scientific organizations,” which typically allows reporters to share embargoed material with sources while working on their stories. Members of the Right to Know Committee pressed the matter, and in June the FDA reversed course. Around the same time, HHS also finally released the list of senior media officials in each of its divisions, which the association had been requesting for about a year.
Despite these victories, and the launch of what will be ongoing quarterly conversations with hhs’s public affairs staff, Freyer is unsure how much progress has been made. “The big issue is that reporters who’ve been at this for a while remember being able to call up and talk to the people who actually knew what was going on, not just spokespeople, and that’s become increasingly difficult,” she says. “So I don’t see milestones here. It’s been an ongoing problem that we’re chipping away at.”
The Obama administration’s transparency problem not only affects access to federal scientists and highly politicized environmental and medical science. It’s also about access to government documents and databases, and basic research. In 2006, allegations emerged that an electron microscopy research group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which receives millions of dollars a year from the Department of Energy, had fabricated data. Suspecting lax oversight, freelance reporter Eugenie Samuel Reich, now a contributing correspondent for the journal Nature, filed a FOIA request for files related to the ensuing investigation, which had been initiated and organized by the lab itself. The Department of Energy rejected the request, so Reich bided her time until the 2008 presidential election ushered in a new administration. When Obama made his pledge about openness and then appointed Steven Chu and a number of other “scientists with excellent reputations” to the department, she believed there would be a “change of heart.” There wasn’t. Reich filed a lawsuit under the FOIA in 2009, which a federal district judge in Boston finally dismissed in April of this year, to her amazement.