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Obama Admin’s Obsession with Controlling the Message means Science loses Out

Gagging Govt Scientists from Speaking Violates Free Speech

A few months ago, when I was researching climate change adaptation policy (check out Ready or Not, in the Journal’s current issue), I contacted James Titus, a veteran sea level rise expert with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, and asked for an interview. I was told that I had to schedule an appointment through the agency’s press office that “coordinates interviews with EPA staff.”

Graphic by Ian Umeda

Frankly, I didn’t think much of it. State and federal agencies have their own protocols to follow after all. If I had to go through to the press office to schedule an interview, so be it. However, I was astounded when I was informed that someone from the press office would listen in to my phone interview with Titus.

“That’s strange. It’s not how it’s done. The conversation between a journalist and a source should be private,” I protested to the press officer who called me with the information. No reporter worth his/her salt could agree to such conditions, especially when conducting a regular, pretty much non-controversial, interview. But the officer politely informed me that it was indeed very much “done”. In fact, she said, it was standard practice at the EPA and all journalists had to either accept the interviewee being chaperoned or lump it.

It struck me then, that in all these years of reporting in the US (and abroad), I’d never really formally interviewed a senior federal official before. Which was probably why this came as a surprise.

I did agree to the conditions in the end, and spoke with Titus with the press officer listening in. It was awkward and frustrating. Nowhere close to the freewheeling conversation I was hoping for. The press officer often interrupted our conversation to tell Titus that he shouldn’t answer a particular question and Titus too, seemed hemmed in. In any case, I made the best I could of the interview and moved on.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded about the encounter again when I learned that the Society for Environmental Journalists (SEJ) had urged the EPA to end its policy of interjecting press officers between reporters and the agency scientists. Good, I thought. So I wasn’t the only one who found the whole process overbearing and absurd, and not to mention, a violation of free speech. (Full disclosure: I joined SEJ as an associate member last month.)

SEJ made that and other recommendations (pdf) to EPA in formal comments in response to EPA's August 5, 2011, draft Scientific Integrity Policy (pdf). The draft policy is the first time that the EPA’s “minders-and-permissions” policy for press interviews (an unwritten rule until now) is being put down in paper as a publicly disclosed policy for the entire agency.

Putting down in writing what shouldn’t even be an unwritten rule. For crying out loud!

This isn’t what journalists expected from an administration that talked big about following science and reason. Hadn’t Obama issued a memo to federal agency heads back in March 2009 saying transparency was key to restoring “scientific integrity” of the agencies? Memos come cheap I guess.

Joe Davis, the director of the SEJ’s Freedom of Information Project, who’s been campaigning to make the EPA more open to news media, says the new policy has a lot to do with the Obama administration’s “obsession with controlling the message.”

“The minders and permissions policy has been in place for several regimes,” he told me. “It got real bad during the Bush administration, which suppressed and distorted science. There was lots of complaining about this [from SEJ members] in the Bush era, but there’s lots more complaining now partly because we expected better. The Obama administration has been a big disappointment in this regard. It’s implementation [of the policy] has been ruthless and oppressive, even more than Bush. Which was unexpected.”

SEJ has been talking with Obama’s public affairs officials for nearly two years now about journalists’ continuing difficulty in obtaining data, setting up interviews and gathering even the most basic information about EPA activities, but it doesn’t seem like Capitol is paying serious attention to scribes’ concerns.

“The discussion between a reporter and a source is sacred, as between a lawyer and his client,” Davis says. “Minders and permissions interject political message control.” I couldn’t agree more. Scientists should have the right to talk openly about their research and voice their opinions, as long as they make it clear that they are not speaking as representatives of a particular government agency. And they should be able to do that without public relations officials monitoring every word they say and without fear of reprisal.

Davis says that by voicing journalists’ concerns about these continuing restrictions on scientists in an open forum, SEJ is hoping to generate “a little” public pressure on the administration to be more open. “The hope is it may have some effect past the quiet, mousy, private comments we [journalists] make among ourselves,” he says.

I hope the effort bears some fruit. It would make our jobs a little easier.

But even if it doesn’t, even if more restrictive policies get put in place, there will always be a few enterprising journalists who will find a way around all the rules. And, as Davis notes, there will always be officials within the EPA (and other agencies) who will leak news to reporters if they think it’s important and serves public good.

The truth, to paraphrase an old bard, will always out.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Managing Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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