Health & Human Services media policy called ‘a Soviet-style power-grab’

PR Office Censorship | Department of Health & Human Services
The Department of Health and Human Services’ just-released media policy makes it official that staff members and reporters are forbidden to speak to each other without reporting to public information officers and supervisors. The rules have “formalized a creeping information-control mechanism that informally began during the Clinton Administration and was accelerated by the Bush and Obama administrations,” writes FDA Webview & FDA Review editor Jim Dickinson. “The U.S. now takes a large step toward joining other information-controlling countries like my native Australia, where government employees who talk with the news media without permission commit a federal crime. I came to the U.S. in 1974 to escape this oppression.”

From: Jim Dickinson
To: Richard.Sorian@hhs.gov
Cc: [four addresses]
Sent: Monday, September 26, 2011 12:38 PM
Subject: News media guidelines

Richard,

The new formal HHS Guidelines on the Provision of Information to the News Media represent, to this 36-year veteran of reporting FDA news, a Soviet-style power-grab. By requiring all HHS employees to arrange their information-sharing with news media through their agency press office, HHS has formalized a creeping information-control mechanism that informally began during the Clinton Administration and was accelerated by the Bush and Obama administrations. The U.S. now takes a large step toward joining other information-controlling countries like my native Australia, where government employees who talk with the news media without permission commit a federal crime. I came to the U.S. in 1974 to escape this oppression.

Consider how impossible these guidelines make the acquisition by a journalist of confidential internal sources in an agency like FDA. The existence of such confidential sources gave an economic foundation to and made possible the foundation of my own media, and the founding of earlier trade media such as The Pink Sheet and Food Chemical News, among many others. Early, confidential, reliable information about government, published before it is approved for release, has been the raison d’etre of such media. Without them new trade media will not be launched, and existing media will likely die out. What rationale for their existence can there be if all information sharing is channeled through the various HHS press offices? Who will dare leak agency information (which by definition belongs to the citizenry, not the agency) before it is approved for dissemination and becomes a generic commodity by its simultaneous release to all? Why spend money on an expensive subscription to a small-circulation trade news letter or Web site when its government information is no different from what is freely available everywhere to everybody?

The fostering of exclusive, confidential sources inside government agencies is the essence of good investigative journalism, and is the rationale for having the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press. Our job is to keep a penetrating spotlight on government agencies and employees that prefer to operate untransparently, at their own pace and on their own agendas, without interference from outside. By taking control of who says what to whom and when, these new guidelines strike a heavy blow against the full, unfettered First Amendment rights of both HHS employees and the news media. They expand the comfort zones of the powerful.

Among the key features of your guidelines, and my comments are:

* An emphasis on timely response and respect for reporters’ deadlines I find this timeliness and respect very elastic at FDA and subject to much abuse, even to complete disregard without any rights of redress.

* Putting bloggers on equal footing with mainstream journalists

* Encouraging, but not requiring, HHS employees to consent to interviews The term interviews is broadly misunderstood, ranging from quick, ad-hoc answers by an agency source to an explicit question about a comment that may already be public, to a full-fledged 40-minute Q&A. To subject both to the same through-the-press-office requirement is cumbersome and intimidating

* Requiring that employees arrange such interviews through media offices This deadens free speech, inhibits or controls what is said, and deters transparency.

* Allowing employees who speak at conferences or other public events to answer reporters’ questions at that time How kind! Why not apply this largess to all other places and times?

* Specifying that media interviews should be on-the-record and attributable to the person speaking to the media representative, unless an alternate attribution arrangement is mutually agreed upon in advance. Again, this is a free speech killer. Off-the-record information is essential to freedom of speech and open government.

Jim Dickinson, Editor
FDA Webview & FDA Review (www.fdaweb.com)

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  • Anonymous

    More evidence of the “transparent government” policies first questioned nine days after the inauguration at http://www.cjr.org/campaign_desk/whos_undercutting_obama.php?page=all

  • Anonymous

    This won’t stop Robert Pear.

  • Anonymous

    This won’t stop Robert Pear.