NASA Sets New Rules On Media

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said scientists may talk to the media about agency findings and their personal interpretations, as long as the two are clearly distinguished.
NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said scientists may talk to the media about agency findings and their personal interpretations, as long as the two are clearly distinguished. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin unveiled new rules yesterday that govern the release of agency information to news media and the public, his most detailed response yet to embarrassing allegations that NASA's public affairs office had sought to suppress the release of scientific information not consistent with the views of the Bush administration.

The new eight-page policy, written by an internal team of scientists, lawyers, public affairs specialists and managers, states that NASA scientists are free to talk to members of the media about their scientific findings and even express personal interpretations of those findings -- the heart of the controversy that has engulfed the agency since January.

It also makes clear that scientists are not required to have a public affairs officer with them when they speak with members of the media, though Griffin emphasized yesterday in comments broadcast to NASA employees that he believes such behavior is unwise.

"If you're not a media professional, then to go into an interview without a media professional is courting trouble," he said. "But you can do as you like."

Griffin had promised the revamped policy in February, after NASA employees complained publicly that information had been manipulated in ways that suited the Bush administration.

In some instances, employees said, scientists who had generated data on global climate change that did not jibe with administration policies had been muzzled or closely monitored by public affairs officials. In another instance, a public affairs employee appointed by the White House sought to weaken agency references to the Big Bang, the scientific and distinctly non-biblical explanation for the birth of the universe.

That employee has since left the agency amid questions about the accuracy of his résumé.

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) praised the new policy, which he said "puts a premium on open communication." NASA's approach, he said in a statement, "should become a model for the entire federal government."

The first of five principles in the new policy statement declares that NASA "is committed to a culture of openness" and assures the public that agency information "will be accurate and unfiltered."

The policy calls for appropriate editing of news releases and other public documents to ensure clarity. "However," the policy states, "such editing shall not change scientific or technical data, or the meaning of programmatic content."

It calls upon all NASA employees to coordinate with public affairs officials before releasing information "that has the potential to generate significant media, or public interest or inquiry." Employees are also encouraged "to the maximal extent practicable" to have a public affairs officer present at media interviews "to attest to the content of the interview, support the interviewee, and provide post-interview follow-up with the media as necessary."

But that advice, Griffin said during his 45-minute broadcast to all of NASA's far-flung facilities, "is not an absolute requirement." He also stressed that when speaking to the public, employees should clearly distinguish between agency findings and personal interpretations.

Griffin faced tough questions from employees after his presentation. One asked whether the remaining 20 or so political appointees on the NASA payroll were having their backgrounds and résumés checked.

Griffin said no such review was underway, adding that "I personally make no distinction" between political appointees and the agency's 17,000-plus career employees.

NASA has five political appointees among about 300 personnel in its public affairs offices, an agency official later said.

Another employee asked about comments Griffin made at a recent celebratory event, in which the administrator thanked former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for his long-standing support of NASA. "He's still with us and we need to keep him there," Griffin said at the event -- a comment some interpreted as an inappropriate reelection endorsement.

Griffin explained yesterday that he meant "we need to keep him as a friend" and apologized for his "inartful choice of words."

In a conversation with reporters later, Griffin expressed optimism that the space shuttle will fly in July. If that flight goes well, he said, he plans to schedule a flight to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in late 2007 or early 2008.

He also confirmed rumors that a workshop scheduled for this summer to discuss exploration of the moon and beyond will include officials from the increasingly ambitious Chinese space program.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company