SEJournal Relaunches WatchDog with a ‘Voice,’ Plus Coronavirus and More

March 18, 2020
Vice President Mike Pence, above at podium, at a March 2 press conference for the Coronavirus Task Force. The coronavirus story has raised issues of government transparency and questions of political censorship of science. Photo: Andrea Hanks/White House. Click to enlarge.

WatchDog: SEJournal Relaunches WatchDog with a ‘Voice,’ Plus Coronavirus and More

EDITOR’S NOTE: The WatchDog has been published by the Society of Environmental Journalists for nearly two decades, relentlessly alerting journalists of threats to their ability to gather information and do their jobs. Thanks to funding from the Newmark Foundation — and a new sense of urgency — SEJ is renewing and redoubling this effort.

SEJournal is now relaunching WatchDog in a new form — as a regularly published opinion column advocating open information in a personal voice. The “voice” of the WatchDog will be that of columnist Joseph A. Davis (pictured, right), who has been advocating First Amendment freedom for all that time and who has been covering the environment journalistically since the 1970s.

SEJ as an organization, and in its publications, maintains objectivity on the issues its journalists cover. But on the one issue of freedom of information, SEJ has long given the WatchDog a license to advocate. SEJ will continue to take organizational positions on freedom of information issues separately through its FOI Task Force, chaired by Timothy Wheeler. Davis also serves on the Task Force as FOI Project director.

FOI watchdogging has been needed for all those years, in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Threats to freedom of information have taken many forms. The current era is both the same and different. The need for vigilance is more urgent than ever today. Over the 30 years of SEJ’s existence, concern over FOI has followed some consistent patterns. Expect more on these big themes:

  • The Freedom of Information Act since 1966 has been a key instrument for investigative journalism and a beacon for public knowledge of what government is up to. Legislative amendments, agency rules, case law and politics have continuously changed it for better or worse. We want every journalist to know how to use this powerful tool.
  • The access of journalists to government officials is essential to effective coverage. The ability of journalists to talk to government officials is often restricted. Agency press officers can either help or obstruct access. For example, press office interference with reporters’ ability to talk to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists has been a chronic complaint for many years.
  • The integrity of science is important to environmental decision-making, and reporters need unimpeded access to scientific information, opinion and debate. The EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy (PDF) is today the closest thing EPA has to a formal press policy, because it says scientists should not be muzzled.
  • Open data is the foundation of data-driven journalism. Environmental agencies like EPA and NOAA are rich in data and, therefore, opportunities for data journalism. But special interests spend a lot of energy trying to limit public access to data about, say, toxic threats or climate. The WatchDog seeks public access to data.
  • Ground rules. Have you ever logged into a press call only to be told to hang up if you did not agree to participate “on background”? This makes the WatchDog growl. There are many ways agencies and their public affairs staff manipulate the “ground rules” for coverage in ways that restrict what the public can know.
  • Physical threats, verbal abuse and safety issues. Journalists are among the first responders who run toward the fire — or the chemical explosion — not away from it. Maximizing safety (while still getting the story) is a key professional imperative. It has hardly helped that the current president incites crowds by calling media the “enemy of the people.” We illuminate and track the physical threats.

You will find FOI-related info in several other parts of the SEJ infosphere. It will come via email to subscribers to the SEJournal Online. You will find often-updated links to FOI news curated on the blog-like SEJ WatchDog TipSheet, newly christened as WatchDog Alert. Another source is part of SEJ’s FOI Task Force pages on the website, titled “SEJ Speaks on FOI Issues,” which documents official SEJ positions.

Welcome to the first entry from our new WatchDog!

By Joseph A. Davis

Part One of Two

1. Openness an Issue for Federal Coronavirus Response
2. SEJ Speaks Out on Press Freedom Issues
3. Sunshine Week Focuses on Open Info at March 15-21 Events


1. Openness an Issue for Federal Coronavirus Response

The fast-developing coronavirus story has been raising issues of government transparency that could affect the life-and-death decisions that federal agencies make to protect people.

It’s more than “messaging.” It’s about whether government agencies give people the information they need to protect themselves — and health professionals the information and resources they need to do their job.

Information is one of the most powerful weapons in fighting an outbreak (this one is now declared to be a pandemic). Yet the United States has been essentially fighting COVID-19 blind so far because of the lack of testing (or delays or problems with testing). Whether this is the result of bungling or policy decisions is still unclear (may require subscription).

Originally, President Trump and his media allies (may require subscription) had maintained that the coronavirus was a “hoax” ginned up by his political opponents to sow panic and discredit him.

But just when the clamor for good information started to grow, the White House on Feb. 27 announced that Vice President Pence would be in charge of all messaging related to COVID-19. That meant experienced expert health professionals would have to clear public statements with Pence and White House staff. 

Questions of political censorship of science arose immediately. Anthony Fauci, trusted head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had to declare publicly “I’m not being muzzled.”

But apparently Fauci had to cancel bookings on five Sunday talk shows.

Still, while Fauci’s remarks often diverged (may require subscription) from the Trump line on COVID-19 in subsequent days, doubts remained. Trump continued to Tweet that the COVID-19 story was a Democratic plot against him. This, even as health experts were saying that the pandemic was very likely to get a lot worse.

On March 10, the attending physician of Congress and the Supreme Court, Dr. Brian Monahan, said he expected 70 million to 150 million people in the United States would eventually be infected with COVID-19. The statement was made in a briefing to Congressional staff. But it was behind closed doors

The transparency problem lingered. Press were anticipating a story about a meeting March 11 between Pence and hospital executives, because the White House had initially told them they could view part of the meeting in a so-called “pool spray” that allows a representative group of journalists to cover an event. But then the White House closed the meeting to press entirely. 

The question of whether hospitals have the surge capacity to cope with a COVID-19 outbreak, of course, is something they need to be talking about. It could crash the health system.

The secrecy was not a mistake. Reuters reported the same day that the White House had ordered health agencies to treat information about top-level meetings on the coronavirus as classified. That included discussions about the scope of infections, quarantines and travel restrictions. 

Sources told Reuters the procedure was unusual and could impair government response to the virus. Responses to Reuters’ original story did not change the basic situation much. 

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2. SEJ Speaks Out on Press Freedom Issues

The Society of Environmental Journalists speaks out for freedom of information in many ways. Often it is through SEJ’s Freedom of Information Task Force, which guides SEJ’s positions on FOI issues.

In recent months, many of the positions SEJ has taken have been in coalition with other journalism groups. Here are some of them:

  • Feb. 21: SEJ wrote the Small Business Administration protesting an "environmental roundtable" announced as being “open to all interested persons, with the exception of the press." "By excluding the press," wrote Task Force Chair Timothy B. Wheeler, "you cast a shadow of suspicion that these roundtables are somehow a private back door to influencing the federal government." Text (PDF).
  • Feb. 19: SEJ joined with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, or RCFP, and 20 other media organizations in filing an amicus brief in La Liberte v. Reid, supporting MSNBC host Joy Reid’s right to attorney’s fees under a California anti-SLAPP statute. RCFP release.
  • Feb. 5: SEJ joined RCFP and 15 other media organizations in filing an amicus brief in Carroll County E911 v. Hasnie, over the county’s refusal to disclose 911 recordings pertaining to a November 2016 house fire in which four Indiana children died. RCFP release.
  • Feb. 3: SEJ joined with RCFP and 55 journalism groups in filing an amicus brief in Parekh v. CBS, supporting the right of CBS and reporter Brian Conybeare to recover attorneys’ fees under the Florida anti-SLAPP statute. RCFP release.
  • Jan. 30: SEJ President Meera Subramanian wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on behalf of SEJ, protesting his verbal abuse of NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly in response to her persistent questioning, along with acts of retribution aimed at intimidating the network. SEJ letter (PDF).
  • Jan. 22: SEJ condemned Indonesia’s arrest and imprisonment of Philip Jacobson, an editor for the environmental news site Mongabay. SEJ’s protest came in a letter from President Meera Subramanian to Indonesian and U.S. officials. Jacobson was eventually released and repatriated. SEJ letter (PDF).
  • Jan. 16: SEJ joined with the RCFP and 56 other media organizations in a letter opposing restrictions on the press during the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump. The restrictions went beyond established Capitol rules. Text of letter (PDF).
  • Nov. 6, 2019: SEJ joined with the Society of Professional Journalists and 27 other journalism groups in urging members of Congress (PDF) to address the ongoing issue of censoring and restricting communication with journalists by federal employees, including public information officers, or PIOs. They called it “censorship by PIO.” The groups supported a bill (H.R. 1709) that would have bypassed PIOs, but the bill was gutted in markup.
  • Oct. 16: SEJ joined with RCFP and 24 other journalism groups in filing an amicus brief in Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case involved whether the state could use copyright law to bar public access to the code of the state’s laws.
  • Oct. 4: SEJ joined with RCFP  and 15 other journalism groups in filing an amicus brief in Martin v. Rollins, urging a federal appeals court to affirm that Massachusetts' wiretapping statute is unconstitutional to the extent it prohibits secret recording of police officers and other government officials while in the public performance of their duties and where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.
  • Oct. 3: SEJ joined a media coalition of 32 groups led by RCFP urging the Supreme Court to provide immediate audio of oral arguments in six immigration and nondiscrimination cases. The Court denied the request.
  • Sept. 11: SEJ joined RCFP and 51 other groups in an amicus brief urging a federal appeals court rehearing of Pitch v. United States. The issue in the case is whether district courts can exercise their inherent authority to order disclosure of grand jury materials in extraordinary circumstances.
  • Aug. 6: SEJ joined a media coalition of 35 groups led by RCFP filing an amicus brief (PDF) in Juan Machado Amadis v. Department of Justice. The groups urged the court to set a strict standard in applying a 2016 FOIA amendment that allows agencies to withhold documents if they "foresee" their disclosure could harm some interests protected by one of the basic FOIA exemptions.
  • June 27: SEJ joined RCFP and 21 other journalism groups in filing an amicus brief (PDF) in Animal Legal Defense Fund et al. v. Reynolds. The case was before a federal appeals court, challenging the Iowa “ag-gag” law as a violation of the First Amendment. Ag-gag laws attempt to criminalize undercover investigations of cruel conditions at industrial farming operations. Courts have held other ag-gag laws to be unconstitutional.

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3. Sunshine Week Focuses on Open Info at March 15-21 Events

Many publications and journalism-related groups celebrate “Sunshine Week” every year to emphasize the importance of freedom of information and transparent government.

You can see a calendar listing many of the events here. Lead sponsors of the event are the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the News Leaders Association.  

A bit of good news for those not in Washington, D.C., — or perhaps self-quarantining or slammed by deadlines — is that many of the events may be livestreamed.

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Watch next week for the second part of this two-parter, with FOI developments at the EPA and the Department of Interior.

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 and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Alert and a recently relaunched WatchDog opinion column. In addition, he compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 11. 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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