In those two hours on August 12, I watched as two articulate, long-time federal government public affairs officers (PAOs) consolidated the government’s stealthy capture of all kinds of non-secret information that previously flowed freely into the public domain through the efforts of a free press. The National Press Club convened a panel discussion before an audience of about 100 of my journalistic colleagues entitled, “Government Public Affairs Offices: More Hindrance Than Help?” I watched from my home in Mexico, via Webcast.
The NPC description of the event presented the issue well:
“Although executive branch communications offices can be useful, at times indispensable, in helping the press cover the government, reporters need to always be free to seek information in other ways. Yet doing so has become difficult to a degree that some say jeopardizes the access the press and the public have to information.
“Public affairs offices increasingly require that reporters conduct all interviews through the press office. U.S. departments and agencies often mandate that their employees only talk to reporters through official channels and with communications staff present. …
“Such restrictions have increasingly become the rule in federal agencies, but they were not in place so widely a few decades ago. Many reporters do not protest the practices, because they have never known another way.
“On the other side of the issue, public affairs professionals believe these controls are necessary to ensure that the press gets accurate information and the department or agency’s message is unified and coherent.”
The two government defenders of the PAO system were well matched by three journalists on the panel who argued strongly against the system’s latter-day exclusive control over communications between the news media and government employees. These proponents of unsupervised access want the PAO system to run in parallel with direct access as a purely voluntary source of help in newsgathering.
Instead, over a two-decade encroachment on our turf, PAOs are our only source for what goes on behind closed government doors in Executive Branch agencies.
It wasn’t always so. When I began reporting FDA news to industry subscribers in 1976, PAOs had no role in my work. I roamed the agency’s corridors, knocked on doors, and spoke with whoever wanted to speak with me. FDA management had no idea who I was talking to, when or where. And there were a dozen other journalists doing the same kind of work.
All that began to change after the Oklahoma City bombing when security came to federal buildings and with it the ability of management to screen all visitors, including reporters. Little by little, “free range” reporting withered on the vine and went into history.
That extinction was painfully clear to me as I watched the August 12 discussion and observed the passive audience fail to spring to the side of the three journalists on the podium as they argued for restoration of direct, unsupervised media access to federal employees in civilian agencies.
I was dismayed by what I interpreted as a sheepish acceptance by journalists of the idea that the government has ownership of non-secret information that the people are not entitled to know, except by government decision and then only through PAOs.
With the tacit acquiescence of the journalistic profession, PAOs now completely control the spigot of public information about what goes on inside their agencies.
As one PAO at FDA told me, he saw his job as “to tell the good news about FDA.” He found plenty of cooperative reporters, much younger and less experienced than I, willing to cooperate in his mission. Thus, he put them on his address list for releases and left me off.
Make no mistake about it. PAOs do keep “enemies” lists—reporters who are perceived as only looking for dirt to dig up against the PAO’s agency, and who have displeased the PAO’s superiors in previous writings.
Unfortunately, most of the present generation of new reporters seems not to know that the First Amendment does not allow PAOs to behave in this way. Actually, neither does the PAOs’ code of ethics, but human nature is what it is.
While most PAOs are full-time professional agency staff members, increasingly an unknown number of them are political appointees sent into agencies to help promote their party’s agenda and polish its reputation.
Thomas Jefferson seemed to have an inkling of what might happen when he famously said that were it left to him to choose between a government with no press, or a press with no government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter.
All of that seems to have gone with the wind. We did it to ourselves.
FOOTNOTE: A group of journalists is fighting to turn back the PAO tide. They call themselves Stop the New American Censorship and they may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jim Dickinson is editor of FDA Webview/FDAReview/FDA Update (www.fdaweb.com). Contact him at email@example.com.