Drastic change in federal culture needed to end suppression of information
Last year, when Environmental Protection Agency staff members knew there were bigger problems with the Flint, Michigan, water supply than the agency was saying, they were under orders not to communicate with reporters without oversight by the agency.
EPA has for years made it very hard for reporters to talk to most staff about most subjects (especially controversial ones) without press office controls. Very often that means the public knows nothing of the issue since staff members are also intimidated from speaking out in any other way.
The same is true for employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was found to have a culture of sloppy handling of powerfully bad bugs. Staff members were afraid to tell the chain of command. They were also forbidden to talk to journalists without agency controls on them.
Similarly controlled are all the employees of the Food and Drug Administration, some of whom worked around the storerooms that were apparently not inventoried for decades and which contained the monster virus smallpox, against serious international agreements.
We should have learned from history that suppression of speech is continuously, horrifically dangerous. Even the people in power who institute the controls have no way of knowing everything the process of silencing people hides.
But over the last 25 years, there has been a surge in restrictions in all kinds of agencies and businesses prohibiting staff from ever speaking to journalists without the involvement of public information offices, sometimes called communication offices or public relations offices. Most federal agencies have these controls, as do many offices in Congress, state and local governments, schools, nonprofit agencies and businesses. Gradually the restrictions have become bolder, with agencies telling reporters what may or may not be discussed, never allowing a word to pass without active monitoring and blocking communication altogether.
Mean censorship has become a cultural norm in this country. It makes a joke of our stance for free speech globally. Countries everywhere could just say their censors are public information officers and solve the problem.
Surveys sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists have shown that 40 percent of PIOs admit to blocking particular reporters when there have been “problems” with their prior reporting.
A new Society of Professional Journalists survey shows PIOs in police departments openly, chillingly saying they monitor discussions between reporters and police officers “to ensure that the correct message is getting out” and “to ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters we want.”
To suggest that people inside government and elsewhere do not use these information controls according to their own ideas and motivations mocks the public.
And yet that is exactly what our officials tell us, saying they must have these PIO surrogates to coordinate the information, forgetting that the public has right to know all the stuff they are not coordinating for us.
Fifty-three journalism and other groups called on President Obama last year to end these restrictions in the federal executive branch. In December, a delegation from SPJ, the American Society of News Editors and the Society of Environmental Journalists went to the White House to tell Press Secretary Josh Earnest this is no way to be the most open administration in history. We left that message for President Obama, including illustrations of the extreme hazards of silencing millions of people.
As the days dwindle down before the election and the campaign trail hears some astoundingly authoritarian rhetoric, we have a special plea for the president: Don’t leave these controls in place. We can’t know how they will be used next year, much less in 20 years. We do know they have become rapidly more intense over the last seven years.
By directing there be a change in the federal culture, the president could embolden people across the country to demand an end to this suppression in all kinds of entities.
In the meantime, news outlets of all types have an unshakable obligation to loudly oppose these controls. With so many people permanently gagged, the press is most certainly in the dark about many things.
Doubtlessly, somewhere in the world, officials walk off with physical resources while journalists say they can’t do anything about it. By acquiescing to these controls, we in the press watch officials walk away with that very precious commodity, information on how our institutions are functioning and impacting us.
Kathryn Foxhall is a freelance reporter who has covered health issues for 40 years. She lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee.