The top public affairs official of the Health and Human Services Department has ordered press officers throughout the big agency to notify her before HHS officials are interviewed by major media outlets.
In a Dec. 6 memo, Stephanie Lee-Miller wrote, "The Office of Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs should be notified in writing of all interview requests regarding the national media." She said the date of the proposed interview, the name of the reporter and the proposed topic should be included.
Some department employes said they fear that the memo is an attempt to limit press access and manage news out of the agency. Others, including Miller's top aide, Chuck T. Kline Jr., contend that it merely puts on paper what had been department policy even before Ronald Reagan took office: that the assistant secretary should have advance notice of major interviews in order to coordinate information policy.
"Someone may be asked to appear on a matter that that person doesn't realize is the subject of discussion at the secretarial or even Cabinet level," Kline said. "The interviewee may not be equipped with the latest information, thereby creating confusion or erroneous policy statements."
One thing the memo doesn't clarify is what constitutes an "interview."
Kline said it is not intended to refer to every contact between a reporter and an agency official. He said it involves a major announcement or a policy interpretation, a television appearance or a set interview in which a number of policies and general issues are discussed.
The memo also did not specify whether the press officer had to wait for Lee-Miller's approval before granting a request for an interview. Kline said, however, that no advance approval is needed in writing. However, if an official has notified Lee-Miller and has not received a response, he is expected to call her office to make sure she approves.
The "national media," according to a list prepared by one public affairs official, are The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Associated Press and United Press International, and the three television networks. Another official added the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour to his list.