The EPA didn’t respond to numerous calls and e-mails, and Rick Weiss, OSTP’s director of communications, began nearly every e-mail and conversation with, “Off the record ” All Weiss would say on the record is that I had erred on a few details in my magazine article.
In March 2009, President Obama sent OSTP director John Holdren a memo directing him to draft a plan to improve scientific integrity throughout the executive branch, a key provision of which was the development of a public communications strategy. Obama gave Holdren 120 days to complete the assignment, which wasn’t finished until December 2010, a year and a half late.
At that time, Holdren issued a memo that provided guidance to departments and agencies about how to improve scientific integrity and openness, giving them 120 days to report the actions they’d taken to develop and implement relevant policies. Because Obama’s original memo asked Holdren to confer with the heads of executive agencies and departments and recommend a plan for improving scientific integrity that included “Presidential action” (and because Weiss turned down my requests to interview Holdren), I mistakenly reported that at the time my article went to press, the plan was still not in place.
It turns out that Holdren’s December 2010 memo was, in fact, the plan (Weiss has not responded to questions about what type of executive action is taking place). I also mistakenly reported that in May 2011, Holdren had “once again extended the deadline for departments and agencies to submit draft policies,” believing that the December memo had requested finalized plans within 120 days when, in fact, it only required progress reports.
Furthermore, I reported that in August 2010, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Holdren’s office for a copy of the science integrity recommendations and related policy documents, and sued after two months passed without a response from OSTP. Weiss stressed that the recommendations were in draft, or deliberative, form at the time, so exempt from FOIA rules, and that OSTP nonetheless eventually released some of the requests materials (my article acknowledged the latter point).
Lastly, Weiss took issue with my statement that the media policies in some corners of the federal government “codify” the need to seek press-office permission for interviews or to have a press officer sit-in on interviews, arguing that Holdren’s 2010 memo did no such thing. In fact, my article never claimed that it did. Rather, it quoted a Society of Environmental Journalists’ complaint that the memo “legitimized” such practices by not strictly forbidding them.
What Holdren’s memo says is that, “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.” As Weiss, a former newspaper reporter, pointed out, departments and agencies can interpret that guidance in a variety of ways.
“But among the things it can mean is: ‘Hey, public affairs official, I’m going to be talking to someone from The Washington Post and will let you know how it goes,’” he wrote in a rare, on-the-record e-mail. “As you know, some agencies have already put out policies in response to Dr. Holdren’s memo that explicitly allow such behavior. Surely my former brethren do not think this an overly restrictive policy. As I mentioned in an earlier e-mail to you, even when I was at the Post we had to tell our bosses if we anticipated seeing ourselves in the news for some reason.”
Perhaps, but the reporter in Weiss should also remember how difficult, or simply impossible, it can be to sort out such details when federal officials won’t submit to on-the-record interviews. As I said at the National Press Club, journalists need to consider the government’s perspective from time to time. The feds aren’t necessarily “the bad guys.” But the fact that none of the invited officials could make time for such an opportune public forum dedicated to transparency and access doesn’t bode well for future relations.