Stacey Singer, a health reporter for the Palm Beach Post in Florida, was perusing a medical journal in 2012 when she came across something startling: a federal epidemiologist’s report about a tuberculosis outbreak in the Jacksonville area. Singer promptly began pursuing the story.
But when she started seeking official comment about the little-reported outbreak, the doors began closing. County health officials referred her to the state health department. State officials referred her to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even though the CDC’s own expert had written the investigative report, the agency’s press office declined to let Singer speak with him. A spokesman told her it was a local matter and sent her back to the state office in Tallahassee.
Through public records requests, Singer eventually was able to piece together the story of a contagion that had caused 13 deaths and 99 illnesses — the worst the CDC had found in 20 years.
“It’s really expensive to fight this hard” for public information, said Singer, now an editorial writer at the newspaper. She suspects that officials were slow to respond because news of the TB outbreak might have harmed Florida’s tourism industry. “They know that to delay is to deny. . . . They know we have to move on to other stories.”
The stories aren’t always as consequential or as dramatic as a TB outbreak, but Singer’s experience is shared by virtually every journalist on the government beat, from the White House on down. They can recite tales with similar outlines: An agency spokesman — frequently a political appointee — rejects the reporter’s request for interviews, offers partial or nonresponsive replies, or delays responding at all until after the journalist’s deadline has passed.
Interview requests that are granted are closely monitored, reporters say, with a press “minder” sitting in. Some agencies require reporters to pose their questions by e-mail, a tactic that enables officials to carefully craft and vet their replies.
Tensions between reporters and public information officers — “hacks and flacks” in the vernacular — aren’t new, of course. Reporters have always wanted more information than government officials have been willing or able to give.
But journalists say the lid has grown tighter under the Obama administration, whose chief executive promised in 2009 to bring “an unprecedented level of openness” to the federal government.
The frustrations boiled over last summer in a letter to President Obama signed by 38 organizations representing journalists and press-freedom advocates. The letter decried “politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies” by spokesmen. “We consider these restrictions a form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear,” the groups wrote.
They asked for “a clear directive” from Obama “telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so.”
Obama hasn’t acted on the suggestion. But his press secretary, Josh Earnest, defended the president’s record, noting in a letter to the groups that, among other things, the administration has processed a record number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, established more protection for whistleblowers and posted White House visitor logs for the first time.
“While there is more work to do, the White House and federal agencies are far more accessible and accountable than ever before,” Earnest wrote.
In fact, most federal agencies get subpar grades on one measure of openness: their responsiveness to FOIA requests, which enable reporters and ordinary citizens to collect government records. Eight of the 15 agencies that get the most FOIA requests received a D grade for their compliance, according to a review this month by the nonprofit Center for Effective Government.
Two agencies — Health and Human Services and the State Department — received failing grades.
When Dina Cappiello, until recently the national environment writer for the Associated Press, asked the Interior Department for federal data about bird deaths on wind-energy farms in 2013, she says, she met a stone wall. The industry-supplied information, the agency told her, was “protected” and couldn’t be released because it would harm a private interest.
Cappiello suspected a political motive for the department’s silence: The Obama administration supports the development of wind power, and release of the data might undercut public support if it showed that wind farms kill large numbers of protected species, such as eagles and falcons.
She filed a FOIA request for the records. No dice. “I still haven’t gotten an answer,” she said recently.
The reaction was even more aggressive when Cappiello began asking the Agriculture Department for interviews for a story about the environmental degradation caused by converting non-crop land into cornfields for ethanol production, another administration initiative.
The agency went on the offense, telling officials in the field not to talk to her and her co-writer. A public affairs official further instructed his colleagues not to provide the reporters with the names of farmers for interviews, as they had routinely done for other stories.
“We just want to have a consistent message on the topic,” the official, Jason Johnson, wrote in an e-mail. Cappiello filed another FOIA request for the directive — and noted the e-mail’s existence in her story about the land-conversion policy.
“I think the thread here is that all of these stories are questioning the goals and policies of the administration,” she said. “All of these have the potential to set off controversy.” While government press officials often talk about having “a consistent message,” Cappiello said, “they never seem to insist on having ‘a truthful message.’ I wonder why.”
Other reporters who cover the government express similar concerns. In a survey of 146 such reporters conducted by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in 2012, 76 percent said they had to get approval from a public information officer before speaking to an agency employee; two-thirds said they were prohibited by the agency from interviewing an employee at least some of the time.
The vast majority — 85 percent — agreed with this statement: “The public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”
“It happens all the time,” said freelance journalist Kathryn Foxhall, a health and science reporter who has become active in promoting greater access to government information. “It’s as if the public has no right to know what’s going on inside a government agency.”
Many of the roadblocks reporters say they have encountered at the federal level are also familiar to journalists covering smaller communities, according to another SPJ survey, conducted last year.
Linda Petersen, managing editor of the Valley Journals newspapers in the Salt Lake City area, recalled contacting an employee of the parks and recreation department in suburban Riverton, Utah, (pop. 40,921) two years ago and asking when the town’s annual Easter egg hunt would start. He refused to help, she said, telling her, “I’ve been instructed not to talk to a reporter ever about anything.”
Petersen called the designated public information official and got the starting time.
As for Stacey Singer, the Florida reporter who probed the TB outbreak, CDC spokesman Scott Bryan said by e-mail that the agency turned her away because “questions about TB outbreaks (or possible TB outbreaks) are best addressed by the state or local departments of health in the affected areas. We routinely refer reporters to state or local officials as they are best able to speak to the latest information.”
Public information professionals say the picture isn’t quite as black and white, or as bleak, as reporters make it. They turn the focus back on journalists. For one thing, they say, many of the reporters they deal with are inexperienced and are tackling complicated subjects on tight deadlines — a formula for getting things wrong without the guidance of a communications official who knows his or her agency.
“Reporters are tweeting, reporters are blogging, they’re on Facebook,” said Tom Reynolds, the associate administrator for public affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency. “EPA is a very science-oriented agency, and it takes a lot of time to understand the work we’re doing across the agency. With less-experienced reporters, it takes even more time.”
The EPA’s communication efforts were the target of a complaint from the Society of Environmental Journalists, which criticized the agency’s slow response to media inquiries after a chemical spill fouled the drinking water around Charleston, W.Va., last year. It cited the case of Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr., who waited a week to get an official comment from the EPA about the water’s potability amid a crisis affecting 300,000 people.
Reynolds, a former Obama campaign official, said the agency has “made adjustments” to address the issue, including adding five people to its communications staff. “We listened and we responded,” he said.Not all inquiries can be fulfilled in a timely manner, the CDC’s Bryan pointed out. At the height of the Ebola outbreak in October, for example, Bryan said his office fielded 1,876 media requests for interviews and information, or 85 every business day.
Ideally, public information officers should be seen as “partners and advocates” for reporters, not as adversaries, said John Verrico, president of the National Association of Government Communicators, a group for government media representatives. “You need to trust that we are getting you complete and accurate information, and we need to trust that you are going to use the information we provide properly and in the context it was intended,” he said.
With both sides warily circling each other, veteran journalists look back on an earlier age and fondly recall how much easier it was to do their jobs.
As a young Newsweek correspondent covering President Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s, Tom DeFrank occasionally stood near the president as he greeted well-wishers on rope lines. On the day would-be assassin Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme fired a shot at Ford in 1975, DeFrank was a few steps behind Ford and ran with the president and his entourage into a building for safety. In the immediate aftermath, he recalls, Ford looked “as white as a ghost.”
That kind of proximity to power is impossible now, said DeFrank, a contributing editor at National Journal. “Access has been shrinking for 25 years, regardless of the president,” he said. “It’s all about controlling the message.”
Trade journalist Jim Dickinson, who has been covering the Food and Drug Administration since 1975, remembers being able to wander the FDA’s halls in search of stories. And he often found important ones — about medical device testing, scientific findings or proposed drug regulations — by popping into offices and talking to government scientists and officials.
These days, Dickinson, the editor of FDA Webview and FDA Review, can’t walk into the agency without an appointment. And he can’t talk to any officials without the consent of the agency’s public information office, which monitors each interview he does.
As a result, Dickinson says, he knows far less today about the inner workings of the FDA than when he was roaming its halls 40 years ago.
And he says the public does, too: “You only get to know what they’re comfortable telling you about it. It’s stultifying.”