Censorship by PIO

Inside the fight for media access


Ask any journalist what makes their blood pressure go up on deadline. It is being routed to a public affairs office without getting the interview, missing a deadline, or just getting a pre-screened department-organized message. There’s no opportunity for follow-up questions or even an off-the-record conversation.

Lately, the public — and even local reporters who have not covered a Washington, D.C. beat — are unaware of how restricted access has become at the federal level.

District journalists are no longer allowed into federal buildings without an escort and appointment. It is assumed that every interview will be “coordinated” through public affairs representatives, who are political appointees. If the public information officer (PIO) is not interested in a story or the reporter, they ignore their inquiries or “slow-roll it” so that the reporter misses the deadline. It’s now common practice for PIOs to join calls and monitor live interviews.

And then there are the gag orders, implied or by memo, so federal government employees cannot talk directly to the press without imperiling their career.

These practices are now deeply embedded into government culture and getting worse every year, leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) told E&P during a recent vodcast on the topic. “SPJ, a group with 6,000 members, calls it ‘censorship by PIO.’” It’s such a bane that the association created an entire web page dedicated to the issue.

In July 2021, SPJ and 24 more journalists' associations wrote a letter to the White House with specific demands: To be allowed direct contact with sources, access to federal buildings, and that requests for interviews be granted.

At the local level, access to officials and information is less controlled; however, dozens of police departments and state agencies have explicit and implicit gag orders preventing employees from talking to the press, according to new research by the Brechner Center.

Science reporting has also been at the heart of the national controversy, Matthew T. Hall, opinion editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune., told E&P. This was especially true during the Trump administration, when the pandemic surged and the CDC was late with information. Last year, The Washington Post decried its gag order to prevent employees from talking, surfaced by a Freedom of Information Act request after a lawsuit.

The Biden administration promised openness, but by July 2021, after just six months in office, the EPA faced its first stress test and folded. When whistleblowers reported a rubber-stamping of toxic chemicals, the chief of staff in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, Allison Pierce, sent a memo reminding employees not to talk to the media without going through public affairs.

Tim Wheeler, chair of the Society of Environmental Journalists Freedom of Information Task Forcechair of the and an editor at the Chesapeake Bay Journal, says none of this is shocking nor new.

“An army of PIOs is managing the information,” he said. “You are getting your information filtered as often as not, … or they don’t get back to you at all.”

March 2021 “Let the Sunshine In” webinar

Just after the Biden administration settled in, Wheeler hosted a webinar with the pithy title, “Let the Sunshine In. Will EPA reopen its doors to the press?” for SEJ members to meet the new office of public affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency.

He started by talking about Biden’s promised openness and the executive order to restore scientific transparency. “How do you intend to restore transparency? Does that include the ability for reporters to interview staff and get a timely start on answers to questions?”

Lyndsay Hamilton, enthusiastic, whip-smart and just two months on the job as associate administrator for the office, took the lead. Nick Conger, the EPA’s press secretary, was playing back-up.

Hamilton said her goal is a positive, transparent relationship. She views media relations as a “service we provide ... We are committed to sharing timely, accurate information to the best of our ability ... it is your job to always ask for more. If we can’t (get you what you need), don’t be afraid to ask about the why.”

Conger started with, “Can we just say happy Sunshine Week?” He talked about empowering regional executives to answer media questions but “still coordinated with public affairs.”

Next question.

Wheeler asked, “There was a time when reporters did not have to go through a PIO for permission or have minders present at the interview. Can we go back to that, and if not, why not?”

Hamilton responded, “I’m not going to debate the word ‘minders’ with you,” and explained that “staffers sit in” on interviews to be helpful. She said the role of “media relations” is to make sure journalists are connected to the right source, that sources are comfortable talking to media, to let conversations play out, and to “follow up on items we need to do.” Accuracy is another issue.

Besides, she has allowed interviews without a “staffer” listening in. “They are not on every call.”

Wheeler had brought some messages from environmental journalists who could not attend. One wrote that she was so excited about getting a thorough response by email from a scientist that she was “giddy.” Three more said that they never got their requested interview. Two were regional reporters, but a district reporter said he had not had an on-the-record interview with someone at the EPA since the Obama administration.

Hamilton responded that the new EPA would strive to do better. She gave out her and Congor’s emails as “go-tos” in case of a problem, noting that theirs is still a “small team” of political appointees.

There may be other reasons for no response. For example, scientists may not want to talk, and “We don’t require them to. … We are certainly straining to do our best … We might miss an email here and there.”

Wheeler had another question, “The two scientists recently talked to me on the record without coordinating (with your office). Did they violate EPA policy?” 

“Well, I’m not going to track them down unless you want me to,” Hamilton answered. “We do ask (them) to coordinate with public affairs, but I’m glad you got the information.”

“What if a scientist is speaking at a scientific conference, and I approach them afterward, during a break. Are they allowed to talk to me?” he asked. 

Hamilton stuttered a bit. “Sure, I mean. Absolutely. Sure. I mean, they are in a public forum already. Yeah, absolutely.”

“Well,” Wheeler noted, “I’ve seen a PR official ‘swoop into the conversation’ in some instances ... Just so you know.”

Hamilton added that she does this, too. “As the PR person on site, I do sometimes join a conversation … to know who the reporter is, where they are from … We do like to know what people are saying about the agency.”

What about the Executive Order that Biden signed 24 hours into his presidency, directing agencies to review scientific integrity practices and identify more effective ways of interacting with the media.

“Did he mean going through a spokesperson?” asked Wheeler.

“Not sure we have a full answer,” Hamilton said. “We will soon.”

Today’s censorship

Censorship by PIO is so insidious in part because the media have quietly gone along. No reporters have faced arrest for pushing back. Stories get published. Even if the information is managed, the job gets done.

“We are not printing blank pages, but part of the story is missing,” explains Kathryn Foxhall, who covered the medical and science beat, including the CDC, for decades.

“It will be correct; probably it will be interesting. … It will suffice, but there will be all kinds of things that are not mentioned, … like budget, political pressures, differences of opinion within the agency,” she said.

Foxhall, who has referred to PIOs as censors, minders, controllers and spies in articles and speaking engagements, was one of the earliest and still one of the fiercest proponents for press access. In September, she was awarded SPJ’s Wells Memorial Key award for her efforts.

To give an example of how covering Washington changed during her career, she likes to tell a story from the Reagan era, when she could talk to a source unsupervised. She was interviewing a high-level source at the CDC about recent budget cuts just as the AIDS epidemic unfolded.  

“He was saying, ‘We’ll make do’ and blah blah blah,” Foxhall recalled. “I was trying to get off the phone, when I asked what he would say if he were off the record. He reversed course and absolutely exploded. … The story I wrote massively changed, and those changes could have saved lives.”

Today, these confidential conversations have been largely eliminated. “We now have over 4 million pandemic dead,” she said. 

“For over two decades, public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, have controlled public scrutiny of themselves.”

So how did this happen?

Foxhall says she first noticed sources redirecting her to “official channels” in the early 1990s. “The newsroom talked about these blocks and what to do about it. There was some eyeball rolling. but you could still get around it with some people skills,” she said. “Over the years, it got tighter and tighter.”

Another reason is the way governments are organized. Department heads are political appointees, while the staff, scientists and lower-level public affairs officers are career employees and subject matter experts.

Over time, each presidential administration inserted a growing layer of political appointees of PIOs on top of the careerist departments and started pulling strings, steering — “coordinating” — all speech to reporters.         

Ironically, Obama was more of a micromanager of information released by lower-profile federal agencies than Trump. Despite his rhetoric, Trump was primarily interested in controlling departments involved in high-profile news stories and essentially left the lower-profile departments alone, sources say.

With Biden, micro-management has returned. PIOs, who are political appointees, have started to weigh in on every piece of information and interview that goes out, including which reporters and news outlets get access, and rewriting press releases with political messages in mind.

It hasn’t helped that the news media shed thousands of journalists who migrated over to these expanded public affairs offices.

Wheeler does not blame these former journalists. “It is not always the PIO, but the president and governors and people they appoint … who control dissent and contraindications,” Wheeler said, adding, “Some of my best friends are PIOs.”

And there are other factors. After 9/11, access to federal buildings was restricted, so credentialed reporters could no longer enter without an appointment and escort. COVID-19 shut down most public meetings and other events that provided face-to-face opportunities for journalists to meet public officials without a chaperone. 

To report this story, we contacted eight government PIOs by email. One went off the record, on deep background. One was afraid to talk because she was new. Finally, one said she would get back to me with a time but missed the deadline.

The other PIOs at the CDC, EPA, the Department of Interior, the National Association of Government Communicators, and Health and Human Services had not responded by deadline.

A case to battle restricted access

If the media is going to challenge the culture of restricted access, the battle will probably be fought in the courts.

Frank LoMonte, the First Amendment attorney at the Brechner Center, who has written a white paper on case law as a roadmap for news media to use in the future, feels the courts have favored employees talking about their jobs despite blanket gag orders.

“The reality is that the employee always wins. We have dug back as far as we can, and the judges say the gag orders are too broad every time. These are 24 cases and all kinds of judges,” he said. “The bottom line is that (legally) you cannot enforce a gag order preventing an employee from discussing their work with the news media,” he said.

The most important Supreme Court case, United States v. National Treasury Employees Union, circa 1995, only confirmed the legal status on which the lower courts have always agreed.

“We know (blanket gag orders) exist. We know they are pervasive across all levels of government. But I’m here to tell you it’s a dead man walking. They are all illegal; they are just waiting for someone to sue,” LoMonte said.

What’s missing is the perfect case.

Most plaintiffs in existing case law have been government employees, such as schoolteachers and police officers. However, with the decline of labor unions who supplied the money and the lawyers, these cases dried up.

So today, LoMonte is setting the stage for a media organization to file suit eventually. It just must be the right case to avoid creating a legal precedent that could worsen things.

So what would the perfect case look like?

According to LoMonte, the media should look for a government agency with a blanket gag order policy that is clear and in writing. An employee handbook is better than a mass email. A mass email is better than a series of single ones, and any email is better than a verbal rebuke. The CDC emails, though explosive at the time, he said, did not make the cut.

Asked if he’s worried that governments won’t just “vague up” their cultural policies after reading this article — thinking here of the EPA’s “broad guidelines to please coordinate” — he said not to worry. Plenty of government agencies at the state and local level outline exactly what employees can’t say.

His new research has already turned up a couple of dozen illegal policies at police departments, including the NYPD, despite the fact it has already been sued once on the issue and lost. Sixteen state agencies in Georgia also have explicit gag order policies.

His advice to journalists is to start documenting.

“Ask the (sources) who were gagged, ‘Did you see a memo?’ Run it to the ground and document it,” he told SPJ attendees on the stage with Foxhall. “Get the agency on the record. Where did it come from, who made it?”

Another culprit in “Censorship by PIO” is the media itself.

“The press acquiesced,” Foxhall contended. “Why isn’t the news industry fighting the controls? One of the top reasons, in my opinion, is that we need their stuff. … It’s easier and inexpensive to quote an official source. If the press parrots (an official source), it takes about an hour to write it up. … (But) we don’t want to discredit our own story by saying how little we know.”

She suggested that journalists need to start consistently writing about their access and make it part of the story. “Lose the embarrassment that journalists are supposed to know everything, and therefore we can’t admit that these people are successfully blocking our newsgathering.”

The San Diego chapter of SPJ gives “Brick and Window awards” once a year to highlight the access issue.    

“We need to call attention,” Matthew T. Hall said. “I’m hoping someone at the Biden administration watches when this is published and picks up the phone.”

Alisa Cromer is the editor of LocalMediaInsider, an online trade journal covering the media industry. She grew up in Washington, D.C.


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