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Seven attempts by PIOs to stymie journalism

By Kathryn Foxhall, SPJ FOI Committee

New York Times Reporter Says There Is Almost Zero Access to EPA Career Staff
Communications Editor: You Go Through The PIO and The PIO Observes
No Reply. Then Nonresponse Response and A Command Not to Name
Blocks to Request to Talk at NCI
Office of Civil Rights Doesn’t Respond
Map and Some Disparaging Remarks, But No Data
Social Security Knows Who We Are. Do We know Who They Are?

New York Times Reporter Says There Is Almost Zero Access to EPA Career Staff

Coral Davenport, a key reporter for the New York Times covering the Environmental Protection Agency, says in the past 10 years she has had almost zero access to career staff at EPA.

At a recent National Press Club session she said, “Usually the way I find things or get leaks is people who have recently left. People outside EPA with close connections, they will talk to folks inside EPA. People in EPA have typically been absolutely petrified of speaking to the press. So they’ll speak one degree out, or recently left. And then I kind of glean some information.”

She said she has been told that historically covering EPA is harder than covering the CIA and she has found that to be true.

“It doesn’t matter who is in charge. It is an agency on lock down.” Getting information, she said, is blood from a stone and that is true across different administrations.

One thing that seemed clear from Davenport’s discussion was that with access to staff blocked off, reporters are greatly dependent on what the agency releases or other access it allows.

In the Obama Administration, she said, once EPA started doing a lot of big regulations, it would have press calls and press releases, “and to some extent give decent, heavily controlled access, to the EPA administrator.”

Once the Obama Administration realized they were going to have to sell their policies, “They kind of brought a political understanding, a political point of view to the press shop, where they started pushing out messaging and that required engaging.”

As for the Trump administration, Davenport said, “I think they are going to end up trying to do some things that are not politically popular. And so I am trying to be a lot more alert to little changes, or regulatory moves, or legal moves that they might not want to advertise that will get filed in the Federal Register without any kind of press release.”

It’s important to note that during those last 10 years Davenport hasn’t been able to talk to career staff things have happened like a high-ranking official took massive amounts of time off over years while claiming to be working for the CIA and later, some staff people knew kids in Flint were continuing to drink lead in water while nothing was done.

The Society of Environmental Journalists said in 2015, “Almost any time a reporter calls up an EPA staff member, he or she is told in effect: I'm not allowed to talk to reporters without permission from the press office. And on the increasingly rare occasions when the press office actually grants permission, they often try to substitute a more politically acceptable interviewee and almost always insist that a public information officer (PIO) be present in person or on the phone.”

SEJ said, “The policy is real enough to scare EPA employees into silence. But when asked whether the policy has ever been formalized or written down, EPA spokespeople say it has not. This non-policy is communicated verbally and informally by a number of channels....”

EPA did not reply to four emails requesting comment on this story.

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Communications Editor: You Go Through The PIO and The PIO Observes

Jonathan Make is Executive Editor at Warren Communications, a leading news publisher on telecommunications, broadcasting, the internet and related matters. He said in the federal agencies he covers the rules are that if you speak to someone you must go through the PIO and most of the time you must have the PIO observing the conversation.

His group covers the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies.

When a reporter asks permission to speak to someone, said Make, the agency might grant it and it might not. Or the agency might give the reporter a written statement, read something over the phone, or create some other configuration.

“It might be on background and there all kinds of different interpretations of that,” Make said.

It’s not just the government doing this, he noted. Corporate entities and other organizations do the same thing.

He said he is fortunate to be of an age where he can recall when institutions, whether government or corporate or nonprofit, were a little bit more open to the press: “It was a different time.”

One issue, he said, is that there is now more competition with more outlets and more people seeking stories.

What’s the impact of this restriction? In general, he said, it cuts down on the information the media have and the more information the media have the better job they do.

He did say having PR people involved is not always a bad thing. “It can prevent the spread of bad information.”

It’s dependent on how forthcoming the entity is, Make said.

Two emails asking FCC for comments were not answered.

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No Reply. Then Nonresponse Response and A Command Not to Name

Recently the news outlet Medpage became interested in the fact that the press releases from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services seemed to be taking a more political tone. Joyce Frieden, a Medpage editor, put in two requests with the CMS press office to talk to someone about that, but did not get a reply. So she ran the story.

Even then, Joyce’s boss asked her to keep calling until CMS answered. After a call every day for four days, a CMS media relations officer gave Frieden a written statement saying the CMS press releases accurately reflect what is happening. But Frieden was not allowed to speak to anyone. And the media relations officer wrote that the statement would have to be “on background,” meaning the story could not name the officer.

So Frieden published that without naming the media relations officer.

I asked Frieden about the officer’s mandate that the comment be published without attribution. I said statements should not be on background unless the reporter agrees.

Frieden agreed.

I told her I had also acquiesced to such commands. But I asked her if it’s not true reporters do that because we are scared the agency staff simply will not respond to us in the future.

Frieden replied that’s why the Association of Healthcare Journalists is trying to set up a session to discuss these things with HHS officials.

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Blocks to Request to Talk at NCI

Kat McGowan is a freelance science and medical journalist with articles in pubs like Stat, Wired and Genome. Last November she was doing a story on whether people who participate in clinical trials should get access to their own data. She notes, “It’s something that patient advocates would like to expand.”

She emailed a researcher at the National Cancer Institute. She knew exactly who she wanted to talk to because of the person’s connections to the subject, saying she, “is extremely well suited to speak about it.”

The expert, Carol Weil, said she would be happy to talk, but indicated that another person, copied on the email, would contact the press office if appropriate. When she heard nothing for two days, McGowan tried to follow up with Weil.

Finally, McGowan got a response from the press office, saying: “I’ve learned of your interest in this topic; however, unfortunately, no NCI spokesperson is available.”

McGowan replied she did not want to speak to a spokesperson, but she had specific technical questions for that particular expert and specific information to confirm.

After a long conversation, she told the PR officer that such nonresponse is not how the process should work. She said she had worked with NCI in the past and that is not how it was.

McGowan said, “He acted like this was normal.”

Finally, the press office staffer asked for an email list of questions that “you’d like an NCI expert to answer.” McGowan sent the questions. NCI never responded.

Amidst all this, McGowan tried later to get back to Weil, but she “disappeared.” She didn’t respond to emails or phone calls.

The whole process took over seven days.

Interestingly enough, given the ethical implications of withholding information from the public, Carol Weil is listed as NCI Program Director, Ethical and Regulatory Affairs.

McGowan did her story based on interviews with pharmaceutical companies. She had to go through their PR offices to speak to people.

But she said there was a hole in the piece because she could not talk to her prime source.

In an interview with me on the issue, Shannon Hatch, NCI media relations branch chief, said what happened with McGowan was simply an error which Hatch regretted, despite the fact McGowan has attempted many contacts over a number of days.

Hatch indicated part of the problem was that NCI staff’s understanding of McGowan’s question changed while they were dealing with it and they had decided Weil was not the correct person to speak to the issue.

(I did not get into questions about the dynamic exchanges that often happen when reporters talk to multiple people and to many of the “wrong” people. Nor did I ask about the fact McGowan had specific understanding of why she wanted to talk to Weil.)

Hatch did confirm that media contacts with NCI are supposed to be “cleared,” first through the National Institutes of Health, of which NCI is a part, and then through Health and Human Services’ Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.

But she denied that it is NCI policy that staff can’t speak to the media without going through the media relations office, saying, “We encourage it and it’s a practice but it’s not policy.”

However, the NCI website states: “... all media inquiries must be directed to the NCI Media Relations Branch (ncipressofficers@mail.nih.gov).”

In addition, Hatch said the HHS media relations policy does not require people to go through media relations to talk to the press.

But that policy states, “it is important that the relevant agency public affairs office be notified of all media calls/contacts that employees receive about their HHS work.”

She also objected to my statement that clearance for media contacts must go up through the political level. However, the HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs is a political appointee.

Since April that office has been held by Charmaine Yeost, who has been cited as saying abortion increases the risk of breast cancer and that the scientific establishment “is under the control of the abortion lobby.”

In addition, Hatch of NCI said that although the agency encourages staff to talk to the media, it can’t force them to.

That idea has been in previous HHS statements including its media policy. One issue is that in many circumstances people would talk willingly if they could do so without the oversight.

But a question beyond that is whether the agency is sending a tacit message to employees by saying they don’t have to talk to reporters: that is, maybe it’s preferable if they don’t. Another is why staff people working to impact the public’s health, usually with public funds, should feel no obligation to answer questions.

I also asked Hatch, “What about instances when certain information would flow or flow much better if this oversight did not happen?”

She said, “It’s not oversight. It’s facilitation.” She said she did not accept the premise there was a lack of information.

Asked whether there had ever been discussion within NCI about the ethics of putting up barriers to contacts or discouraging communication with this “involvement,” by media offices, Hatch said there had not been to her knowledge.

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Office of Civil Rights Doesn’t Respond

In another instance, this one in May after the change in presidential administrations, Kat McGowan tried to reach the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services. OCR reportedly was continuing an investigation of allegations by the American Civil Liberties Union against Myriad Genetics for purportedly not giving patients full genetic records.

McGowan documented 16 various contacts she made to OCR or HHS from May 8 to mid-June with no response. The OCR media number rang with no answer and was later out of service for at least two days, she says. One staff person’s auto-respond email message referred her to another staff person’s email, which was also on auto-respond.

After five weeks, Rachel Seeger, an OCR senior advisor for public affairs and outreach, emailed, “I regret the delay in our response. OCR can confirm that we have received the complaint, but as a matter of policy OCR cannot comment on current or potential investigations.”

McGowan asked again. Seeger did not offer anything further.

I emailed Seeger and Mark Weber, HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs, asking why there was no response. Seeger emailed saying, “OCR cannot comment on current or potential investigations.”

When I asked if I could talk to someone about why that is the policy, Seeger emailed, in part, “You may attribute the following to OCR’s Deputy Director for Health Information Privacy, Deven McGraw: Like most local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, the HHS Office for Civil Rights follows established standards with respect to disclosing information on active investigations, in that OCR neither confirms nor denies the existence of an investigation, or reveals the status of the investigation, nor do we release information concerning investigations until a case has closed. Once a case has closed, OCR is transparent with the public.”

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Map and Some Disparaging Remarks, But No Data

In June the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a map showing the number of insurers expected to participate in health exchanges in each county in 2018.

The press release said, “The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is committed to doing everything permitted under current law to provide patients with immediate relief from damage the Exchanges has done to the individual and small group health insurance markets.”

But when reporter Matt Wynn of Medpage Today looked for the numbers that were behind the map, he could not find them on the CMS website and a CMS public affairs officer, Shelby Venson-Smith, said no information would be shared at that time.

Wynn wrote, “Surely, I thought, I caught CMS on a bad day. The map exists and data were used to make it.”

A few more attempts yielded much the same answer.

Wynn noted that other news outlets published the map as it was, apparently without asking for the data.

Wynn said, “This is, at best, weird.

“At worst, it raises questions about CMS intentions: is the aim to inform the public or to promote the political agenda of the White House, which has been relentless in its criticism of the Affordable Care Act.”

It should be noted that the nation depends on CMS for much of the data and analysis about Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act and much else about health care. And that information informs what we do about healthcare.

The follow-up is also interesting

To research this, I emailed the CMS press office asking why this happened. Venson-Smith replied, “On background/not a direct quote, unfortunately we are not providing the data at this time. It’s important to note, that we expect participation to continue to fluctuate since issuers have until September 27 to send final signed agreements.”

I wrote back re-asking the question as to why the data can’t be released.

But I also asked why the press officer had mandated that her answer be “on background/not a direct quote.”

I stated, “Nothing is ever ‘on background’ unless a journalist agrees to it first. ‘On background’ should be reserved for instances when the risk to or pressure on the source is so great that the information would not flow otherwise. If that is the case for basic information, the public needs to understand that.”

Within minutes Venson-Smith called me, very upset. She said that it was her instructions to write such mandates when she sent things out and that was how it had always worked.

After I did not agree, she hung up and then emailed someone she thought was my editor, saying, “I was not informed in the original request that any response I gave would be used as a direct source, which is why I made clear in my response ‘no direct quoting.’ I would like to give you a call to discuss this situation further.”

She also emailed the communications strategist at SPJ, when she realized I did not work with the first editor.

Venson-Smith was apparently quite honest in her understanding that everything, by default, is not for attribution and unless given permission, reporters can’t tell the public who is talking.

When I emailed again about the data, requesting to speak to someone, Venson-Smith emailed, “Not a direct quote. As previously mentioned, we have nothing further to share with you on this topic.”

After I emailed other people in the agency, Jane Norris, CMS Director of Communications, said the agency would provide a complete picture of the participating insurers prior to the open enrollment beginning November 1, and, “It would be greatly appreciated if you would respect the decision of our office and consider this matter tabled until we get closer to this time-frame.”

I wrote back, my sixth email to CMS, saying my question stood on why there was a map but no data. Norris replied that the data was all open source and I could do my own reporting on the numbers. When I asked Norris what that meant on August 2, I did not get a reply.

On August 8, the Washington Post published a story saying the CMS communication staff was not answering on how it will handle open enrollment season this fall.

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Social Security Knows Who We Are. Do We know Who They Are?

Last year I did a story on the Social Security Disability program. At that time the Social Security Administration said it did not have an employee listing for public distribution. The press office would not let me talk to Joanna Firmin, the SSA staff member who had testified at National Academy of Medicine about the subject. The press office said, “Media inquiries and communications are handled by this office — Ms. Firmin is not a spokesperson.”

So in July of this year I wanted to revisit the issue to see if there had been any changes.

Same story: there is no employee listing available and the answer about speaking to the expert was, “Please send any questions you may have for Joanna Firmin to this email address and we will try and get them answered.”

Again, no listing of employees. (SSA does have an organizational chart on its website with a limited number of employees listed, without contact information. I did find some names and emails in the privately published, “Federal Yellow Book.”)

Another email got the same answer.

I found Joanna Firmin’s email address on the internet and wrote to her saying it is crucial for people in agencies that impact the public to talk to the press and that often critical things will be missed by everyone if reporters don’t pull various threads together. There was no answer.

I also followed the press office’s suggestion to send questions to that email address, asking, “Why can’t I talk to Joanna Firmin?” and “Why can I talk only to the press office?”

Again, no answer.

Meantime, the SSA administers about $900 billion annually in federal benefits for retirement and disability, for about 61 million individuals. Among the many issues the public might be interested are trends in the number of people in disability programs or the fact an attorney who ran a disability fraud scheme costing taxpayers tens of millions over years was only recently prosecuted.

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