Obama urged to end limits on reporters’ access to federal staff

Friday, April 24, 2009

Members of the Association of Health Care Journalists recently called upon President Barack Obama to end certain restrictions on journalists’ access to federal staff.

According to a March 4 press release from the AHCJ, the group is contesting policies that require journalists to receive approval from public affairs officers prior to interviews with government agency officials.

“These permission-to-speak mandates cut down on journalists’ contacts with agencies by as much as 90 percent, day in and day out,” said Kathryn Foxhall, a Washington, D.C.-based health-care journalist and member of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee. “They inhibit what public servants are willing to tell journalists and thus consistently constrain what the public is allowed to know about its government,” she added in the news release.

In a Feb. 26 letter to Obama, AHCJ board members Trudy Lieberman, Mary Chris Jaklevic and Len Bruzzese proposed steps the administration should take to increase its transparency and emphasized problems with the current interview policies.

“Such policies, which are in place at such critical agencies as the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and most agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services, hamper newsgathering and interfere with the public’s right to know,” the board members wrote in the letter.

The proposed steps included directing agencies to ensure their policies are conducive to newsgathering, prohibiting the use of permission forms for journalists to interview federal staff, and ending public affairs officials’ monitoring of interviews. The AHCJ also sent a copy of the letter to Beth Noveck in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The AHCJ stressed the impediment to newsgathering that current policies present. The group noted examples of interview requests being ignored or denied as well as long delays when interview requests are granted.

“Such red tape is particularly onerous in the online era, when stories are reported and published in a matter of minutes or hours,” the letter said.

The board members also said that monitoring interviews can have a chilling effect on federal staff, who may opt not to provide all information to reporters if such information is different from the administration’s “official story.”

Foxhall echoed this concern.

“Quite regularly, there are massive, verifiable facts and perspectives that staff members could give us, but will not when they are being monitored. These include things that don’t happen to fit with a political administration’s pronouncements,” she told the First Amendment Center Online.

The interview policies also hinder “off-the-record” conversations, Foxhall said. Previously, she said, such conversations would provide valuable information that could be verified through other sources.

Under current policies, such information is off-limits, she said.

In testimony to the FDA’s Risk Communication Advisory Committee in February 2008, Foxhall gave an example of the importance of such conversations.

“Before the permission-to-speak system, one day I was on the phone with an agency staffer — an expert, the head of a program — for 30 minutes. The interview was not great but I had gotten my obligatory quotes and I was about to hang up. Then, just on a chance, I said, ‘Dr. XYZ, is there something you could tell me if your name weren’t attached to it?’ At that point Dr. XYZ exploded with information. It was as if a klieg light had come on in a totally dark cave,” she said. “Everything he told me was public information. And it was confirmable. But not in a hundred years would a reporter or members of Congress have understood it without the help of an insider.”

Such a conversation could not happen today, Foxhall said, which could lead to misleading and deceptive reporting.

Case in point, she told the FDA panel:

“Something happened a couple years back that illustrated to me how much trouble we are in. An agency held a major media event to announce an initiative. But there was no initiative because there was nothing new, no new funding or new activity. This most certainly had to do with politics.

“The media covered the event and gave it major play. No reporter understood the inside workings to question things that should have been obvious. No reporter could call staff without being tracked by the agency. And of the numerous staff people who understood the situation, no one tipped off a reporter, because they are forbidden to talk to us off the record and because staff people and reporters don’t know each other any more. …

“The important thing to notice here is how confident agencies seem to be that they can just put out a story, control the information and nobody will talk to each other, even though dozens of people know better. The press is flying blind and full advantage is taken of that.”

The AHCJ said that although restrictions on journalists’ access have grown in recent administrations, it recognizes Obama’s pledges of transparency during the campaign and in his initial time in office.

Obama addressed transparency on his first day in office, reinstituting a “presumption of disclosure for Freedom of Information Act requests about the workings of government,” according to a Jan. 22 Associated Press report.

Government watchdog groups have said such changes indicate an improvement in disclosure of government information after the Bush administration.

“The fact that Mr. Obama took these actions on his very first day in office signals a new era in government accountability,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told the AP. “He is turning the page and moving away from the secrecy of the last administration.”

Such transparency is vital to journalists’ work, the AHCJ said.

“In an era when issues surrounding health care are more complex than ever, journalists need reasonable access to experts who are employed on behalf of U.S. taxpayers,” AHCJ board member Jaklevic said in the group’s March 4 press release. “In recent years, approval and monitoring procedures have been used to impede the flow of information to the public. Restoring access to experts is critical to achieve government transparency as President Obama advocates.”

Foxhall added that such access is critical if journalists are to communicate government agencies’ actions to the public.

“Perhaps the largest effect of these rules is that reporters don’t attempt to contact the agencies nearly as often as they did in the past,” she said. “We can’t spend time on something that is not going to work. Agencies cannot be much of a resource for us when we have to put in an application for each conversation.”

Courtney Holliday is a senior majoring in economics and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

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