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.