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Harsh questions for the press


Kathryn Foxhall, FOI Committee Member, 301-779-8239, kfoxhall@verizon.net
Ashlynn Neumeyer, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-361-4133, aneumeyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — For many years before the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists “weren’t there,” to a huge extent, in terms of reporting on the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The controls keeping them out continue.

Reporters cannot enter the facilities except under controlled circumstances like official meetings. There are no credentials to allow reporters to enter, although journalists could be vetted as easily as the thousands of employees are. The rules force reporters to go through public information offices to seek permission to speak to anyone. In reality, reporters are often never allowed to speak to the people they want at all.

Last year Donald McNeil, Jr., then a New York Times reporter, said that even under the Obama administration CDC had to clear anything important through its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. But under the Trump administration, he said, “If you don’t talk to people off the record, you don’t talk to anyone because nobody is being allowed to say anything on the record,” unless it is cleared through various layers, sometimes including the White House.

Having a former New York Times reporter confirm it is good, because many other reporters say the same.

Christina Jewett won awards for her 2019 Kaiser Health News series that found FDA had for nearly 20 years, “let medical device companies file reports of injuries and malfunctions outside a widely scrutinized public database, which leave doctors and medical sleuths in the dark.” Over the six months she worked on the story, FDA never allowed Jewett to speak to a subject matter expert. She built the story through Freedom of Information Act-obtained documents and interviews with people outside the agency.

In the first months of the pandemic after CDC had already made stumbles that cost lives, a CDC official made it plain how things work, telling the agency’s media staff, “Just because there are outstanding [press] requests or folks keep getting asked to do a particular interview does not mean it has to be fulfilled.”

I have harsh questions for the press: Why, with tens of thousands of people in these institutions silenced, do we believe we are getting even half the story? Why are we implying that the public should entrust millions of lives to agencies when it is impossible to really know them? Why do we trust authorities who use their power to control public scrutiny of themselves?

Understand, among other things, reporters have heard for years the tales of behind-the-scenes controls, limitations on what may be discussed, and the “slow-rolling” that happens after a reporter makes a plea to speak to someone.

For the 25 to 30 years that these controls have surged, starting with the restrictions against employees speaking to journalists without oversight, news outlets have said little about them, certainly not explaining them in each article they impact. We cling to our traditional work ethic that says people will always try to stop us and good reporters get the story anyway.

Frequently, the reality is somewhat the reverse: journalists get stuff — some of it quite impressive, mind you — and then we deem whatever we get to be THE story.

Despite journalists’ dictum that skepticism is critical to our work, we have our own conflict of interest with being too skeptical: we need to publish stories and they need to be credible. So when FDA or CDC, with all their authority, pushes out a briefing or statement or allows an interview, that is a valuable resource to us. We want to publish it, basically. We don’t want to think about the fact that all the staff around that situation is silenced, so who can know what the real story is? We certainly don’t want to explain that to our audiences.

We also don’t want to contemplate the likelihood that if the authorities did not block us from walking around or calling around the agency, someone would tip us off to important stories that currently go unmentioned.

FDA and CDC happen to be salient, frightening examples at this moment.

In reality, the controls on reporters talking to people and doing newsgathering have become a pervasive norm through our culture. The Society of Professional Journalists did seven surveys (2012–2016) that show the restrictions have become common and often intense in federal, state and local governments, in education and science, and in police departments. One local editor told me last fall that the PIO system, along with the lack of resources, has been the death of local journalism. Other editors just said the controls have become much tighter over the years.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on March 1 that Chester County, Pennsylvania, has written into its ethics code prohibitions against employees speaking about almost anything related to their job to anybody, including friends, family or press. Later coverage said the officials, after being criticized, planned to modify the policy, but still leave it restrictive.

This deep, long term trend is a recipe for corrosion, perhaps related to or underlying the general decline in democracy. Journalists are morally obligated to find ways to oppose it. The first way, of course, is to explain it to the public, just like any other corruption, and to report on it repeatedly as it continues to be a factor.

It’s also imperative that we fight these restrictions on the policy level, for the sake of protecting people. Frank LoMonte, head of the Brechner Center, says journalists can fight the restrictions in court. We also need to continuously tell legislators and other policymakers that the controls are making us all subordinate to insiders.

There are, after all, grave consequences to the press not being allowed in the CDC, FDA or other entities that impact the public.

Kathryn Foxhall is a veteran reporter on federal health issues. She is an active SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Member and on the SPJ D.C. Pro Chapter Board.

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