When the Valley Journals of Riverton, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, wanted to know the time of the town’s 2012 Easter egg hunt, they couldn’t find out. The city barred the parks official from speaking to reporters without permission, and nothing, not even the Second Coming, would pry that information loose.
What Valley Journals Managing Editor Linda Petersen experienced is unfortunately all too common – and becoming more so – in Utah, Washington, D.C., and other government shops across the country.
Agencies at all levels, through aggressive and manipulative tactics, are increasingly controlling what information the public receives, threatening the very foundation of democracy.
This is more than just about Easter eggs and inconveniences for journalists. Growing message management by the government is something that concerns anyone who cares about holding elected officials accountable. The examples are too numerous to ignore.
Last year, White House photographers and their supporters fought en masse against the increasingly common practice of the Obama administration barring photos of official events, instead distributing polished photographs provided by the White House.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped a Palm Beach Post reporter from speaking to a CDC investigator on one of the largest tuberculosis outbreaks in 20 years because, the PR officer said, the agency wanted the state to take the lead.
The Department of Health and Human Services stopped a New York Times reporter from talking to a federally employed psychologist who had alleged widespread child abuse on a Native American reservation.
Most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with journalists unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely. When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title “spokesperson.”
Reporters seeking interviews are expected to ask permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers.
So why should the public care about journalists’ frustrations? Why don’t reporters just buck up and work harder to get the information? Many are, despite cutbacks in most newsrooms. But this isn’t a battle between the press and government. It’s about the information you receive to self-govern.
It is entirely possible that Department of Health and Human Services insiders would have educated reporters months ago about the HealthCare.gov website dysfunction if they could have spoken confidentially – if the government were responsive to the public rather than secretive and controlling.
Unfortunately, because of these overzealous PR practices, the public won’t find out about problems until it’s too late.
A 2013 survey of government public affairs officers from throughout the country found that two-thirds believe it is their duty to monitor employee interviews with journalists. The study, by Kennesaw State University researcher Carolyn Carlson, also found that 40 percent had blocked reporters because they didn’t like what the journalists wrote.
Passed off by agencies as “just the way it is,” these restrictions are relatively new. In pre-9/11 times, credentialed reporters walked agency halls freely. They called staff at will, and bureaucrats weren’t afraid of losing their jobs if they took the time for a conversation. The public got information it needed.
Reporters’ unofficial talks with people inside government – going back long before Watergate – are essential to public understanding and prevention of abuse of power. The official story is never the whole story.
Limiting access to government information is a disservice to the citizenry. Muzzling government employees has the same effect as censorship. It hides problems that need to be exposed.
Journalists don’t want that, citizens don’t want that, and we sincerely hope the administration doesn’t want that.
It is time for a significant cultural shift in American government, and that starts at the top.
We urge President Obama, governors, mayors, school superintendents and all other government leaders to reverse this troubling trend by pledging to create open agency information cultures.
Allow journalists and the public to contact government employees directly for information, without PR specialists intervening. Allow journalists to interview government employees without a public relations specialist present. Pass a federal shield law, stronger state shield laws and stronger whistleblower protection laws.
All of these actions will improve public discourse and democracy. Citizens should expect nothing less of their public servants – to foster knowledge, credibility and openness, not spin, mistrust and secrecy. The time for change is now, before it is too late.
Hunts are for Easter eggs, not government information.
Angela Greiling Keane is the 2013 president of the National Press Club. David Cuillier is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and president of the Society of Professional Journalists.