SEJ Works To Hold Obama Administration to Its Pledge of Transparency

April 15, 2010

 By CHRISTY GEORGE

A confession: for a long time, I didn't experience the access shutdown reported by so many other SEJ members. I don't know if it was the agencies I covered, OPB's reputation for balance, or my relative obscurity far away from the Beltway, where so many SEJers on deadline run into brick walls when they ask for interviews with federal workers.

And then came one raw, rainy December day in Corvallis, Oregon, when I arrived at the home of an eminent IPCC author.

Just as I gratefully accepted a warm cup of Earl Grey tea, his cell phone rang.

On the line was a USFS communications person in Washington, D.C., who told the scientist, Ron Neilson, that he couldn't go ahead with my planned radio interview. Neilson works for the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State University, and I had interviewed him about climate change and forests for a TV documentary I produced in 2007, during the Bush administration.

To be clear, I had called several days earlier and requested permission through appropriate channels to debrief Neilson about a paper he was presenting the following day at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. I had explained that my story wouldn't run until after he presented the paper publicly.

No dice. No explanation. Just no.

It didn't shut down my story, but my listeners missed out on the news in Neilson's paper — and the Forest Service lost out on a chance to publicize the solid science their researchers are contributing to the climate change field.

SEJers have weighed in with similar stories of access problems and roadblocks, such as high fees and long waits for Freedom of Information requests, at the USFS, EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency), OSHA (the Occupational Safety & Health Administration), FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) and other federal agencies.

Put me in the camp that really appreciates PIOs. A good Public Information Officer can be tremendously helpful by providing background information, setting up access to federal research sites and scheduling interviews with federal employees. But things turn sour when "sitting in" on an interview turns to chilling a scientist's ability to respond freely.

Many PIOs privately object to these restrictive practices. And to be fair, access problems didn't begin with Obama — or, to be really fair, not even with Bush — but they surged right after the terror attacks of 9/11. The Bush administration took down key environmental and right-to-know information from agency and cabinet department websites.

Gone overnight were facts about pipelines, chemical and nuclear power plant safety and certain corporate records about critical public infrastructure.

The impression was clear — that the Bush administration was using the 9/11 attacks to give industry a pass on environmental scrutiny.

SEJ responded in March 2002, by creating the FOI Task Force. Just riffle through past editions of SEJ's WatchDog Tipsheet to see the scores of letters SEJ has written opposing secrecy and stiff fees for journalists' access to federal land, while also fighting to keep the Freedom of Information Act alive and functioning, and journalists in the loop about what the government is doing, often in concert with other journalism groups such as SPJ (the Society of Professional Journalists), AHCJ (Association of Health Care Journalists), ASNE (the American Society of News Editors), RCFP (the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press), and others. That work has continued with the Obama administration.

SEJ recently wrote directly to White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, in an attempt to trigger an administration-wide stand-down on press policies which "forbid, delay, or monitor contact between reporters and employees. " Muzzling public officials, or forcing them to conduct interviews with "minders" in the room, we wrote, is an attack on both good science and good public policy.

The irony, of course, is that when Barack Obama took office, he vowed to increase transparency in the federal government, writing that he "is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government."

We do not know how much of what's happening is being driven by Obama or White House officials closest to the center of power, as opposed to so-called "left-behinds" from the Bush administration.

But there's some cause for cautious optimism — at least, when it comes to EPA.

No agency is more central to SEJ members than EPA. While other agencies may own a piece of environment turf, EPA is the single agency whose job is completely about environmental matters in the United States. And because it's so central to us, EPA's missteps and goofs are on full display to the SEJ membership.

Case in point: the late January press conference unveiling EPA's budget. Afterwards, former SEJ board member Mark Schleifstein wrote EPA to complain about the agency's surprise ground rule that every speaker except Administrator Lisa Jackson was on background — a rule announced to reporters while their phones were muted, so no one could object. And EPA took only a very few questions.

It was disappointing, given the work EPA had done to respond to SEJ criticisms going back to December 2008, when SEJ wrote the outgoing Bush EPA to complain about secrecy around the SEJ works to hold Obama administration to its pledge of transparency SEJ President's Report disastrous Tennessee coal ash spill. The incoming Obama EPA responded, promising to improve the flow of information.

Since then, high-level EPA press staff has made strides in trying to smooth out relations for our members. Largely at their initiative, we've had a couple of conference calls, and EPA PIOs from every region and deputy associate administrator for public affairs Allyn Brooks-LaSure attended SEJ's Madison conference and were part of a "Meet the PIOs" session.

EPA has acted on SEJ suggestions to include reporters beyond the Beltway in press events, and to hold events at a time that's convenient for reporters on every time zone from Eastern to Pacific. In turn, EPA staff has solicited SEJ input about their redesign of www.epa.gov — a key portal for EPA interaction with the media, and perhaps most important to the agency, the public. EPA is now on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and more.

A promising start — until the January press conference.

We got on the phone again. Brooks-LaSure and EPA press secretary Adora Andy listened, and explained that they had been trying to find a balance between a too-short press conference, and one that kept reporters away from budget briefings going on at other agencies. They agreed the "on background" mandate was silly, especially given that EPA posted the audio of the "background-only" press conference on the web the very next day. They agreed to look into increasing their bandwidth in order to allow more reporters on the phone line, and to rethink how best to handle key press events so as to increase the number of people who get a chance to ask questions.

"It's a big vessel — eighteen thousand people — and a tiny rudder, but we're trying to course-correct," said Allyn Brooks-LaSure.

That February call happened during the Washington DC blizzard, when the EPA officials were house-bound, so we also had enough time to lay out a bit of SEJ history, demographics and organizational goals. We ended by agreeing to make these calls a monthly fixture.

This all adds up to reason for optimism. Just look at some of the headlines in the 'Dog TipSheet since that first July 2009 call: Agencies Post "Openness" Pages on Web per Obama Order, EPA Reveals More High-Hazard Coal-Ash Sites, EPA Moves for Disclosure of Pesticide "Inert" Ingredients, EPA Takes Some Trade Secret Wraps off of Chemical Identity, TRI Analysis Offers State-Level Toxics Info, EPA Releases Bush-Suppressed Endangerment Finding, EPA Uses Online Forum To Address TRI Mining Changes, Tapping the "Fishbowl" — Is EPA Doing Some Things Right on FOI?, EPA Releases All Responses to Coal Ash Survey, and on and on.

The progress made with EPA so far leaves me convinced that it's too soon for SEJ to write off President Obama's pledge of transparency. In our last call, EPA officials themselves suggested a survey of SEJ members about EPA services would be helpful. The FOI Task Force will go one step further, and revisit the state of transparency across all federal agencies.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2010 issue.