The growing culture of censorship by PIO

In 1981, Cristine Russell, then a health reporter at the Washington Post, asked to interview C. Everett Koop, who was nominated to be surgeon general of the United States. Koop was controversial because of his anti-abortion views, among other things; as Russell recalls it, people in the Department of Health and Human Services insisted that a public information officer (PIO) sit in on the conversation. In her years of reporting, she had never before run into such a demand. “They were trying to keep him kind of in line, I guess, in his public conversation,” she says. She objected at first, but ultimately relented: “It was the only way I could get the interview with him.”

Such oversight was relatively rare, according to reporters from the time. Still, it was burdensome. The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sometimes routed interview requests through public information offices, says Russell, with some requests requiring clearance from higher offices—even the White House. Interview requests subjected to long approval processes made it difficult for Russell to get critical perspectives and expertise on the record for her work. She likens the strictures to those she encountered in corporate public-information offices. “You couldn’t just pick up the phone and get through to the vice president of pharmacology at some drug company,” she says. 

Michael Dolan, who edited Devices and Diagnostics Letter, an industry newsletter, remembers walking around the FDA’s Bureau of Medical Devices during the late seventies and early eighties. There was no assumption in the agencies, as he says there is now, that “you don’t belong there.” 

James Dickinson, editor of the newsletter FDA Webview, recalls walking the FDA halls from the seventies through the mid-nineties and entering offices freely to ask questions. “I would knock on the door. Sometimes I’d interrupt a meeting. I’d apologize and agree to come back later,” Dickinson says. He spoke with agency staffers repeatedly; as a result, he says, “they were all of them telling me stuff.” During the eighties, as a scandal grew over the government’s generic drug-approval process, Dickinson recalls seeing an FDA deputy commissioner for legislative affairs chase a lead congressional investigator down a hall and into an elevator, bellowing at him to give back documents he had just obtained from an office. 

After the lethal 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, physical access to many offices, including that of the FDA, was halted—a decision Dickinson later challenged at an FDA board, though to no avail. (“Over my dead body,” he recalls a deputy commissioner for management whispering as she walked past him.) Gradually, Dickinson says, reporters’ ability to call people without going through PIOs was cut off; then much of the permission to talk even after going through PIOs disappeared. (In an email, the FDA’s public affairs office commented, “There is no FDA policy that prohibits FDA staff from speaking with journalists directly,” adding that when reporters contact the media-affairs team, that office can encourage agency experts to do interviews.)

For about eighteen years, through the early nineties, I covered federal health agencies, for the monthly newspaper of the American Public Health Association and then for a newsletter, mostly by phone. During that time, my sources were never made to seek approval from PIOs; I freely called staffers who usually felt obligated to help me—and not obligated to notify agency higher-ups. During one memorable instance in the early years of the aids crisis, a CDC official and highly placed scientist agreed to move our phone conversation from on the record to on background; then, with my promise not to use his name, he made a U-turn from supporting President Reagan’s proposed budget cuts to telling me how the lab referral systems on the chopping block worked and asserting they had helped the agency understand the epidemic. To this day, it shakes me to think that I might have written an article limited to what statements he would put his name to, with millions of lives at stake. 

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PIO-related reporting constraints, Russell says, “became kind of omnipresent as the years went on.” Glenn Nowak, a former head of media relations at the CDC who held various communication positions at the agency starting in the early nineties, says each subsequent administration has become more restrictive on journalists’ talking to scientists and experts without oversight from authorities. Initially, Nowak says, political administrations wanted to know about media interviews; then they wanted approval powers for some interviews; and, finally, they wanted to approve every contact between a reporter and staff person. “They have seen previous administrations do those kinds of things and not seem to experience any adverse consequences,” Nowak says. (There were times, he adds, when assistant secretaries asked that Nowak avoid talking to certain reporters because their stories weren’t perceived as friendly to the political administration.) While insiders may sometimes defy the rules and talk without notifying PIOs, most contacts happen through official, mediated channels—leaving many reporters unaware of what control might be wielded over their access. 

Such controls on government-agency experts now feel like a widespread cultural norm in journalism. The mandates for reporters to obtain agency permission for expert commentary on urgent matters, from regulatory matters to public-health guidance, have become a choke point.  

 

IN 2012, the Society of Professional Journalists surveyed nearly a hundred and fifty journalists who covered federal agencies about their thoughts on interference by public information officers. Seventy-one percent agreed that “government agency controls over who I interview” represented a form of censorship. Eighty-five percent of federal reporters either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that “the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.” Seventy-eight percent of political and general-assignment reporters at the state and local level said the same thing in a 2014 survey, as did over half of science journalists surveyed in 2015. In multiple surveys conducted between 2012 and 2016, SPJ found that forced oversight of reporters was pervasive in federal entities, state and local governments, education, government science agencies, and police departments. Notably, in a 2013 SPJ survey of federal PIOs, 40 percent admitted to blocking specific reporters because of past “problems” with their stories.

Jonathan Make, who was until recently the executive editor of Communications Daily and frequently reported on the Federal Communications Commission, says a variety of gatekeeping measures have become routine, and extend well beyond de facto bans on employees’ speaking extemporaneously with the media and other stakeholders. The restrictions include officials’ speaking “not for attribution” in situations that previously would be on the record, including in public conferences or midsize groups of stakeholders; rigorous controls on the number of questions that may be asked, and when they may be asked; and requirements that reporters provide questions or topics in advance of interviews. Officials, Make says, also often rely on prepared statements for comments, or demand that journalists let them review in writing what they intend to publish about the official’s comments.

In 2019, Frank LoMonte, then the director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and now the legal counsel for CNN, published an analysis that argued such constraining policies are unconstitutional, and courts have said as much across the board. “Although rules and policies requiring government employees to get approval before speaking with the news media are widely enforced, no such policy has ever survived a constitutional challenge,” LoMonte said in a summary brief. He added in the analysis itself that, while journalists encountering such obstruction “should be able to establish standing to challenge unconstitutional gag orders based on their history of success in the analogous context of challenging gag orders on trial participants…there is no record of their doing so.”

In April 2020, as covid-19 deaths began to mount, Michawn Rich, then special adviser to the CDC director, emailed some of the staff about how to handle the pleas of reporters. “Just because there are outstanding requests or folks keep getting asked to do a particular interview does not mean it has to be fulfilled,” Rich wrote. (Her note also specified that staff should not “send up requests for Greta Van Susteren or anyone affiliated with Voice of America,” who were in then-President Trump’s disfavor.) That fall, an Association of Health Care Journalists survey of reporters covering covid-19 found that 40 percent were blocked from speaking directly with public health experts at least half the time. Thirty-eight percent said infrequent or nonexistent briefings were a problem in their work. Sixty percent said press briefings failed to answer critical questions. Because of the ongoing rules, all eleven thousand or so staff at the CDC, to take one example, have been banned from communicating with journalists throughout the covid-19 pandemic without first notifying authorities. 

Today, Nowak, the former CDC media relations head, says the agency’s scientists have “been trained” to send reporters seeking interviews to the public affairs office, which then presses the journalists for information on story topics and possible lines of questioning. Interview approval requires sending the request up to the Department of Health and Human Services, where it goes to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, which is a politically appointed position, for review. That official has often been part of the presidential campaign and has campaign ideas about communication, Nowak says. They can say yes or no, or they can add their recommendations and thoughts to the key messages. In the case of a “highly visible, politically charged issue,” Nowak says, approval may require consultation with the White House. Nowak says he assumes all agencies in HHS operate under these rules. (Several requests for interviews with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs were not returned.)

In 2015, more than fifty journalism organizations signed a letter to the Obama administration requesting an end to obstructive and invasive interactions with the press. Journalists met with Josh Earnest, then Obama’s press secretary, who told them that reporters getting sources to say things despite the presence of facilitators overseeing interactions was simply part of the job. (Disclosure: I attended the meeting.) In 2017, seventy organizations signed a letter requesting similar relief, as well as a meeting with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, but received no response. Last year, twenty-five groups wrote to the Biden administration to raise the same concern but received only a pro forma response.

And yet these constraining dynamics, which shape news coverage across the country, are typically invisible in the coverage that they affect. What are we missing?

 

SOME JOURNALISTS assert that the rules requiring PIO oversight are a deep frustration but not a real impediment to good journalism. “The reliable rule of life in journalism is, there is hardly anyone harboring important information—something forbidden no one is supposed to know—who doesn’t in the end (or more likely, very soon) race to tell you all about it,” Dorothy Rabinowitz, columnist and member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, says. “I have never met any exception.”

Dolan, the Devices and Diagnostics editor, makes a similar point. “There are always going to be reporters who are willing and able to get around and under and over whatever fences the government puts up to get their stories,” he says.

That said, putting the burden on journalists to scale fences doesn’t mean we are not missing a lot, forever or for a long time. Katherine Eban, whose Bottle of Lies exposed bad manufacturing practices in the generic drug industry, says the book took her a decade—in part due to the muzzling of government scientists. She says she had no idea, until I told her, that reporters once spoke to FDA scientists without controls and even walked the agency’s halls.

The federal agencies shepherd a vast, unknowable volume of information. It seems reasonable to suggest that journalists might be acquiring only a small percent of it—and publishing important stories on that percentage—while being kept oblivious to the rest. 

“Yes, I think we’re missing things,” Miranda Spivack, a reporter who roamed the halls of the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice in the late 1970s, says. She does not know what percentage we get, but adds that it is “certainly not 100.”

Why doesn’t the press push back against such constraints more often in its coverage? Reluctance may come in part from a feeling of helplessness. “My sense is that things have shifted, in terms of perception at least, by the agencies, and more importantly, the politicos who run them, in terms of listening to us,” Dan Vergano, a reporter with Grid News, says. “Like, they don’t care at this point.” Politicians, he adds, see themselves as being able to get around journalists. Then there’s the possible loss of access: a number of journalists readily say in private that they don’t fight the restrictions on their coverage due to a well-founded fear that agencies will block access for them, or even for their whole outlet. 

Individual reporters may want to push back against controls, Vergano says, but the economics of the news business may mean they’re pushed to simply get a quote no matter the terms. Still, reporters and news outlets should be fully awake to the terms they’re tacitly agreeing to for the sake of a quote. “This is part and parcel of an, if not authoritarian drift in American politics,” Vergano says, “a dangerous one in terms of democracy.” That seems like the best reason to fight back. 

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Kathryn Foxhall has been a Washington reporter, mostly on health, for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the American Public Health Association’s newspaper. She has become a point person for the Society of Professional Journalists and others in opposing the new culture of gag rules. She was awarded the 2021 Wells Key, SPJ’s highest honor for members, specifically for that work.

TOP IMAGE: AP Photo/Ron Harris, Manuel Balce Ceneta, File