Agency Openness with Media Becomes Issue as Guard Changes, Screws Tighten

February 27, 2013
Gina McCarthy

As new heads for environmental and energy agencies come before the Senate for confirmation, they will likely feel heat over the gulf between the Obama administration's rhetoric on transparency and its iron discipline on message control.

Case in point: Gina McCarthy, now EPA's Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, but widely expected to be Obama's nominee for EPA's top administrator slot. One of the few EPA officials to speak publicly about EPA's tacit policy of requiring minders and permissions for press interviews, she has publicly defended it during the tenure of her predecessor, Lisa P. Jackson.

EPA scientists and staff consistently tell environmental reporters that they are not allowed to talk to news media without permission from EPA's Public Affairs Office and the presence of a Saddam-style PAO "minder." Journalists object to these and other restrictions.

Despite EPA employees' insistence that the permission policy exists, no document has yet been discovered that officially decrees the policy. The agency's Science Integrity Policy, which applies primarily to scientists, encourages and allows minders-and-permissions restrictions, but does not explicitly require them.

During the run-up to the second Iraq war, President Bush cited Saddam Hussein's insistence that Iraqi government "minders" sit in on UN inspector interviews with nuclear scientists as evidence that the dictator was hiding a nuclear weapons program. (Later evidence showed he had none.) Later, Bush executive agencies imposed their own stricter and more widespread requirements for minders in press interviews. Obama, despite promising a retreat from restrictive Bush information policies, seems to be continuing them.

EPA is hardly the only federal environmental agency to tighten press-access policies during the Obama administration. Other such agencies — including several with soon-to-be-filled leadership vacancies — include the Interior Department and Energy Department.

The authoritative newsletter Greenwire recently declared that, if McCarthy is nominated, EPA openness is likely to be an issue at any confirmation hearing. It quoted her comments at a September 2012 forum held by the Union of Concerned Scientists. While advocating openness, McCarthy justified the agency's minders-and-permissions press policy at that forum as a way of making sure that scientists stick to science.

But journalism groups are increasingly pushing back against agency go-through-PIO policies. For example, Vincent Duffy, a Michigan Radio journalist who is chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), recently posted a blog piece stiffly questioning the minders-and-permissions policy of various government agencies.

The Society of Environmental Journalists went on record long ago opposing such policies:

SEJ has urged agency leaders and PIOs to change the policies, to little avail.

Now other journalism groups are engaging. The Society of Professional Journalists published a critique of restrictive press policies in its September-October 2012 issue, written by journalists Linda Petersen and Kathryn Foxhall <http://www.sej.org/node/13423>. Petersen chairs the SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee.

Foxhall has even established a blog — Blocking Reporting USA — to track this specific issue. With others in the open-government community, she has launched a petition on the issue, urging journalists and journalism organizations to sign on.

From journalists' accounts on that blog, together with reports from environmental journalists and SEJ's own members, the situation is getting worse. EPA has simply refused permission for some interviews. The Food and Drug Administration is reported to be refusing permission for all interviews by some journalists.

How the openness issue will play out in confirmation hearings is anybody's guess. The WatchDog will observe them watchfully, when they occur. Will senators ask nominees about their planned press policies? Even in today's bitterly partisan Congress, transparency is a bipartisan issue. As the Senate Environment Committee learned during the Bush administration, EPA can stonewall not only the news media, but also congressional committees asking for information to which they are lawfully entitled.

As recently as January 13, 2013, the National Weather Service moved to fire a top-level official, William Proenza, for talking to the news media.


 

This is one of the stories in the February 27, 2013 issue of SEJ's biweekly WatchDog. Find the rest of the stories and past issues here.