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U.S. Forest Service ‘wins’ 2014 SPJ Black Hole Award for interfering with flow of important public information


March 19, 2015

David Cuillier, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair, 520-248-6242 (PDT), spjdave@yahoo.com
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is awarding its fourth annual Black Hole Award to the U. S. Forest Service for interfering with the flow of important public information about the potential dangers of drinking water.

Independent journalist Rhiannon Fionn tried for more than a year to interview the Forest Service’s expert on the health dangers of selenium in drinking water. She was stymied by a series of demands that included, in her view, overt censorship.

“Time and again, the government has shut me down or so mired me in red tape that I give up for a while … but I never give up completely,” Fionn says on the Coal Ash Chronicles website.
She goes on to describe the lengths the Forest Service has gone to in giving her the runaround and ultimately, offering her a scripted interview – where her questions and the scientist’s responses would be carefully reviewed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Ethics. The Forest Service is under the umbrella of the USDA.

“These actions by the Forest Service are indicative of transparency and freedom of information problems that agency has had for years. Public relations people control the flow of information to the public and that is not conducive to a healthy democracy, or in this case, healthy living,” said David Cuillier, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chair. “Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who in 1931 wrote the nation’s most important court decision on government efforts to interfere with the news media, would turn over in his grave if a case like this was presented before him. What possible national security secrets could the Forest Service be protecting?”

The Forest Service has a history of message control. Late last year, the Forest Service came under fire when it announced it was introducing rules governing how it oversees photography and videography shot in national forests. The rules grew out of a 14-year-old debate about how to make sure large commercial filming projects, such as television commercials, don’t damage or disrupt the nation’s most remote wild lands. Some interpreted the new rules to mean that journalists would have to apply for a permit costing up to $1,500 each time they shot photos – even on a smartphone -- in congressionally delegated wilderness. After a wave of protests from professional news associations, the Forest Service said the new rule would only apply to commercial filming.

“These actions are just more examples of the broken promise of Candidate Obama to preside over the most transparent administration in U.S. history. Of course, government incursions against transparency have continued under the leadership of President Obama, and if anything are getting worse,” Cuillier said.

SPJ and the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists announced this week preliminary findings of a survey of science writers that found they struggle to obtain information from government agencies for their stories and that they often must go through public information offices to contact subject matter experts within agencies in order to get interviews.

The findings and a more detailed report based on the survey will be discussed in Washington, D.C., at a National Press Club event April 9.
Nominations for the Black Hole Award come from journalists, open-government advocates and the general public.

Previous recipients of the Black Hole Award include Oklahoma State University, the Georgia, Utah and Wisconsin legislatures and the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The Society of Professional Journalists launched the Black Hole Award to highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know. By exposing such abuses, SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee seeks to educate members of the public about their rights and call attention to those who would interfere with openness and transparency.

As for Fionn, she refuses to script her interviews with anyone, but especially a government employee.

“I’m sharing this with all of you because you need to know that our government – this time by way of the U.S. Forest Service – is censoring government scientists on this national and very important issue, and because while they may not want to tell you what’s up with coal ash, that’s our mission,” she says on the website. “Why? Because you deserve to know what’s in your drinking water.”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.


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