Can CDC Be Cured After Trump-Era Coronavirus ‘Infection’?

March 31, 2021
Under CDC Director Robert Redfield, shown above at an April 22, 2020, coronavirus briefing at the White House, the federal agency was enveloped in a crisis of credibility. Photo: White House/Shealah Craighead. Click to enlarge.

WatchDog Opinion: Can CDC Be Cured After Trump-Era Coronavirus ‘Infection’?

By Joseph A. Davis

The Trump administration’s political strangulation of science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helped kill well over half a million Americans due to COVID-19 and, in the process, almost destroyed the integrity of government science.

Credibility at the CDC may now be off the ventilator. But there’s a long way to go. That’s why it is essential for journalists to talk to scientists — and scientists to talk to the public — without the interference of political appointees.

As the lies, distortions, concealments and betrayals of public trust become apparent in the post-Trump era, the integrity of agency public information on health matters is being highlighted as a key to whether government can govern in the public interest.


Tales of corruption and suppression

of science at the CDC stand as

a morality play for journalists

and government flaks alike.


The tales of corruption and suppression of science at the CDC stand as a morality play for journalists and government flaks alike. It goes beyond the actions of public affairs offices and undermines the integrity of government itself.

The latest revelation came from the CDC itself (the Biden CDC, that is).

On March 15, Lena Sun reported in the Washington Post on some corrections CDC had made to critical guidance that was issued under Trump. That guidance was “not primarily authored” by professional staff and did not reflect the best scientific evidence. That means that political staff, presumably following Trump’s direction, put it out in the name of CDC scientists.

The guidance was spun. If Trump wanted schools opened, the CDC, under Director Robert R. Redfield, was ready to tell the public it was safe and easy.

The review had been ordered by incoming CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky and was conducted by Anne Schuchat, one of the scientists who had been silenced by Trump. It identified three guidance documents that had been removed from the agency’s site (and alluded to many more) because they were based on politics rather than science. It was merely the latest instance of cheater’s science.

The low-key way all this was brought out shows that sheepishness still trumps hard truth when it comes to public health information from the government. The only way government public affairs offices can get public trust (and their own credibility) back is to be transparent. While the CDC is a horrific, and deadly, case in point, the need for transparency spans agencies.

Environmental journalists may think all this has nothing to do with them. Wrong.

Remember that Redfield, whom we now see more clearly as Trump’s compliant stooge, also served as head of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — an agency set up in 1980 to represent communities worried about environmental toxicity. Historically, that may have been the intent, but over many administrations it often failed to protect the public.

The CDC, in fact, has many important programs related to the environment. For example, it monitors waterborne disease and insect vectors of infectious disease.


Early warnings silenced

As to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still an overriding concern, the CDC is one place where politics mugged science. In a dark alley.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar, at right, at a COVID-19 event in Boston with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker last June. Photo: Governor's Press Office/Joshua Qualls. Click to enlarge.

Case in point: Back on Feb. 25, 2020, before much alarm over COVID-19 had set in, and back when it could still have done some good, a CDC scientist tried to warn us. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned of the potential for “severe disease” that hadn’t happened yet.

The stock market dipped and Trump furiously called Alex Azar, who was Messonnier’s boss as secretary of Health and Human Services, and threatened to fire her (subscription required). The next day, Trump put Vice President Mike Pence, whose loyalty he could ostensibly count on, in charge of the COVID-19 task force overseeing the federal response. And, Trump decreed, all communications had to be cleared through Pence.

It may not be accurate (may require subscription) to say Messonnier was immediately “silenced,” as the Biden campaign later claimed, but she no longer appeared onstage at the widely televised daily briefings which then began with Trump as star.

One of the sadder chapters in this saga is that most cable networks continued to carry these long and uninformative task force briefings live, in full, and mostly without fact-checking. Or did so, at least until about April 23, when Trump suggested injecting disinfectant directly into the human body.


Testing suppressed, data captured

The pile of evidence that the Trump White House stifled CDC scientists has only grown since then.

One of the first signs was Trump’s effort to suppress testing. COVID-19 testing started by faltering, then proceeded slowly. Saying the quiet part out loud, Trump made clear his opposition to testing: “When you test, you create cases.” At a Tulsa campaign rally in June, we heard him say, “I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’” Still, the case numbers got worse.


Trump moved to take over

the collection and reporting

of case data from the CDC,

which had long done this work.


Another sign was the attempt to capture the data and make it disappear. Trump moved in July to take over the collection and reporting of case data from the CDC, which had long done this work. The White House gave control over COVID-19 case data to HHS, which contracted it out to two firms run by Trump cronies.

Yet another tricky move was the Trump team’s effort to take editorial control of (well, to censor actually) the mainstay CDC scientific journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Scientists in the field had long regarded it as the last word on how many people were dying and what they were dying of.

The overthrow of MMWR was partly the work of Michael Caputo. He was a political appointee, and for a short while the top HHS public affairs person. And he was a veteran of the Trump 2016 campaign. In the year 2000, he had been working to improve the image of Vladimir Putin in the United States.

Caputo was brought in personally by Trump in April 2020 and given power over much of the COVID-19 messaging (which was ultimately controlled by Trump himself). But he was gone by September 2020, after a series of paranoid rants (may require subscription), in one of which he accused CDC scientists of sedition.

The lesson, perhaps, was that giving more power to the PR people does not always get you good PR.


Whither press relations?

The question is: What now? And how do we keep this stuff from happening ever again?

The answer may be that we can’t get a guarantee. Or that good policies on paper mean nothing if top leaders are ready to stake everything on a lie. Or that the right proclamations mean little when the people proclaiming them are dishonest. Or that news media policies don’t help if people are going to violate, disobey, ignore, game and manipulate them. Or if people who know the truth have been made afraid to tell it.

Still, some of us in the media still cling to this naive, almost religious belief that the answer is more transparency, that more disclosure is the only thing that will ever cure a lie. Sadly, it may not. But what else do we have?


Before we dump all the blame on

the PR team, let’s acknowledge

the media’s role in this fiasco.


And before we dump all the blame on the PR team, let’s acknowledge the media’s role in this fiasco.

Five years ago, it was still taboo among most U.S. mainstream media to use the word “lie.” The media feasted on Trump from the start. The cable nets seemed to think it was their professional duty to carry Trump’s daily COVID-19 briefings live and unfact-checked, no matter how often he abused the platform. The media had a bad habit of giving falsehood a chance to respond to truth.

Fact is, CDC already has a pretty good press policy and had it since before Trump took it over. You can find it here (predictably, as a component of their Scientific Integrity Policy).

One of the many good things in it is a statement that CDC scientists can and should “speak on official work without interference from media communication or policy office.” Credit where due: It’s one of the few federal agencies whose media policy goes this far. Also true: Trump and his administration did a lot to keep it from being followed.

WatchDog is not the first to argue that journalists should be able to talk to scientists without minders. A coalition of 53 media groups (including the Society of Environmental Journalists) was making this point, in vain, to the Obama administration in December 2015. It comes up at many federal agencies, over and over.

Looking at it — again — from the viewpoint of the public affairs office: Stifling scientists is bad PR.

Take it from the National Association of Science Writers, a group that (unlike SEJ) includes PR people as well as journalists. They invited a wide range of professionals to a meeting in October 2018, to come up with a consensus on best practices.

One conclusion: “Journalists should have direct, unrestricted access to sources in the federal government. PIOs and federal agencies should encourage direct and unfettered communication between journalists and scientists.”


Actions to fix a damaged agency

So, on the assumption that the job before CDC communicators is fixing something that has been badly damaged, WatchDog offers these suggestions:

  1. Let scientists talk to journalists without supervision, permission or censorship. Let them talk on background to avoid retribution.
  2. Appoint public affairs staff who are subject experts and communications professionals rather than campaign veterans. Let them know public health.
  3. Ensure the public affairs staff encourage, rather than impede interviews, even if there may need to be protocols for setting them up.
  4. Publish open email and telephone directories of CDC scientists.
  5. Appoint agency leaders who are qualified science professionals rather than political operatives.
  6. Practice full transparency about potential conflict of interest for political appointees, as well as scientists and public affairs staff.
  7. Guarantee the scientific and editorial independence of government scientific publications and full transparency in the peer review process for government scientific publications.
  8. Ensure CDC scientific advisory committees are fully transparent and independent. CDC should fully comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and the Government in the Sunshine Act.
  9. Ensure communication between agency administrators and scientists are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
  10. Ensure the process by which CDC agency scientists get permission to publish is fully transparent.
  11. Provide CDC scientists wide latitude and financial support to attend public scientific meetings, as well as permission to present their work and answer questions.
  12. Make “open source” any scientific articles and publications resulting from CDC, so that they are available easily to the public without charge
  13. Make public health data at CDC available to the public upon request under FOIA in easily accessible digital form as a general rule, with exceptions only for classified material or to protect legitimate privacy concerns.
  14. Actually enforce the full scientific integrity policy as “policy” and not as mere “guidance.” Focus on the actions of political appointees.
  15. Likewise, enforce strictures like the Whistleblower Protection Act. And detach the Office of Inspector General for the CDC from HHS to make it more independent of political influence. Along with the CDC Office of Scientific Integrity and the Public Health Ethics Unit, it should be aggressively protecting scientists, not persecuting them.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 13. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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