Reporters Say Federal Officials, Data Increasingly Off Limits

Paul Farhi, Washington Post, March 30, 2015

Stacey Singer, a health reporter for the Palm Beach Post in Florida, was perusing a medical journal in 2012 when she came across something startling: a federal epidemiologist’s report about a tuberculosis outbreak in the Jacksonville area. Singer promptly began pursuing the story.

But when she started seeking official comment about the little-reported outbreak, the doors began closing. County health officials referred her to the state health department. State officials referred her to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even though the CDC’s own expert had written the investigative report, the agency’s press office declined to let Singer speak with him. A spokesman told her it was a local matter and sent her back to the state office in Tallahassee.

Through public records requests, Singer eventually was able to piece together the story of a contagion that had caused 13 deaths and 99 illnesses–the worst the CDC had found in 20 years.

“It’s really expensive to fight this hard” for public information, said Singer, now an editorial writer at the newspaper. She suspects that officials were slow to respond because news of the TB outbreak might have harmed Florida’s tourism industry. “They know that to delay is to deny. . . . They know we have to move on to other stories.”

The stories aren’t always as consequential or as dramatic as a TB outbreak, but Singer’s experience is shared by virtually every journalist on the government beat, from the White House on down. They can recite tales with similar outlines: An agency spokesman–frequently a political appointee–rejects the reporter’s request for interviews, offers partial or nonresponsive replies, or delays responding at all until after the journalist’s deadline has passed.

Interview requests that are granted are closely monitored, reporters say, with a press “minder” sitting in. Some agencies require reporters to pose their questions by e-mail, a tactic that enables officials to carefully craft and vet their replies.

Tensions between reporters and public information officers–“hacks and flacks” in the vernacular–aren’t new, of course. Reporters have always wanted more information than government officials have been willing or able to give.

But journalists say the lid has grown tighter under the Obama administration, whose chief executive promised in 2009 to bring “an unprecedented level of openness” to the federal government.

The frustrations boiled over last summer in a letter to President Obama signed by 38 organizations representing journalists and press-freedom advocates. The letter decried “politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies” by spokesmen. “We consider these restrictions a form of censorship–an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear,” the groups wrote.

They asked for “a clear directive” from Obama “telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so.”

Obama hasn’t acted on the suggestion. But his press secretary, Josh Earnest, defended the president’s record, noting in a letter to the groups that, among other things, the administration has processed a record number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, established more protection for whistleblowers and posted White House visitor logs for the first time.

“While there is more work to do, the White House and federal agencies are far more accessible and accountable than ever before,” Earnest wrote.

In fact, most federal agencies get subpar grades on one measure of openness: their responsiveness to FOIA requests, which enable reporters and ordinary citizens to collect government records. Eight of the 15 agencies that get the most FOIA requests received a D grade for their compliance, according to a review this month by the nonprofit Center for Effective Government.


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  • “It’s really expensive to fight this hard” for public information, said Singer, now an editorial writer at the newspaper. She suspects that officials were slow to respond because news of the TB outbreak might have harmed Florida’s tourism industry. “They know that to delay is to deny. . . . They know we have to move on to other stories.”

    I suspect the real reason for everyone being so officially tight lipped is because the TB outbreak centered on some diverse group.

    • TruthBeTold

      Yes. What tourist industry is there in Jacksonville?

      • John Smith

        Daytona and St. Augustine are nearby.

        • Tim

          I LOVED St. Augustine. It`s my new fall back Florida White position. I was unimpressed with Daytona. Just a four block strip more for cars than people…

          • John Smith

            Daytona sucks, IMO.

  • JackKrak

    Yep – note how the skyrocketing rates of TB was spun into a discussion of (white) people who question immunizations a couple of months ago when everybody knows it’s an immigration issue, not a “science” issue.

    By the way, if you want prompt and complete support from the gatekeepers of federal data, just tell them that you’re doing a study on how handicapped lesbian blacks and latinos are underrepresented among law school students or some such nonsense – they’ll give you everything you need, I’m sure.

  • Chip Carver

    What does one expect from our “government” when the front man is a black puppet (all the better to avoid criticism) whose own background is buried in secrecy, whether it’s the question of his birth certificate, his school records, or records of ‘clubs’ he belonged to during the early, heady days of his career?

    • John Smith

      Someone here posted that conservatives hate lies and progressives hate truth.

  • Avner Lipschitz, DDS

    Sounds like TB was brought to Florida as an “act of love” by some of Jeb’s extended family.

    • Jane Charlton

      < Google is
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  • MekongDelta69

    The regime’s official line is “There’s always ‘more work to do.'”

  • Tyranny thrives best in secrecy. So does incompetence. At least with secrecy we don’t have to listen to their lies.

  • dd121

    As the government becomes more Fascist it also become more arrogant. Our ancestors who founded the country meant that the government should fear the people. What has happened is that now, the people fear the government. Somehow I think the founders knew that would come.

    • carriewhite64

      The more secrets a government harbors, the more dangerous it is to citizens.

    • Alden

      Check out the Whiskey rebellion if you think that the founders meant the government should fear the people. Hamilton and the elites wanted the frontier farmers to repay France the cost of the revolution through whiskey taxes. Washington led more troops against the frontier farmers than the founders ever put in the field against the English.

  • John Smith

    Pretty bad when the same press that carries his water for him think he’s suppressing more information than typical. I can’t wait until they classify FBI reporting stats.

  • MBlanc46

    Black arsonists and looters are given “space”, but if decent citizens try to get information from their government….

    • Lexonaut

      Take melanin injections and start a riot.

  • A Freespeechzone

    I thought that negro in the WH promised to be completely transparent—instead, he’s opaque.

    Lying POS

  • antiquesunlight

    The most frustrating thing about stuff like this is how predictable it all is. Anybody with eyes, ears, and brain knew the government would get bigger, more invasive, more top heavy, and more secretive under Obama.

  • Earl P. Holt III

    Better not let the “great unwashed” learn that most of those outbreaks of potentially fatal illnesses originate in immigrant communities…

  • Hilis Hatki

    “My administration will be the most transparent administration ever…. uhhh… to the point where it will be so transparent that it appears invisible.”

  • Alden

    Boo hoo Reporters and the media in general have been viciously anti White since 1950 so I’m glad to see the government giving them a hard time.