Last month senior officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told staffers to avoid using seven words such as “science-based” and “fetus” in budget-related documents. The backlash was swift and strident; headlines accused the CDC of censoring scientific ideas, of attempting to substitute ideology for truth, of an Orwellian attempt to manufacture an alternate reality under the administration of Donald Trump.
The CDC denies it “banned” any words, and further reporting by The Washington Post cast the “words to avoid” issue as an attempt to make the agency's work more palatable to Republican lawmakers. Even so, the incident provides a telling glimpse of the politicization of the agency's communications. Documents recently obtained via two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests indicate the CDC and other executive branch agencies do, in fact, quietly implement organized strategies to control the flow and tone of scientific information to the press and the public. Moreover, these practices have been in place under both the Trump and Obama administrations. The techniques being used are much more subtle—and sometimes more successful—than mere censorship. Two agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services’ umbrella have erected obstacles to reporters’ access to federal scientists. And by striking backroom deals with favored journalists, press officers try to get reporters to cleave to an official narrative. “They're asking people to be stenographers,” says Ivan Oransky, a health journalist and journalism professor at New York University.
E-mails from CDC officials, obtained via FOIA requests in the past few months, give the impression that the agency’s official media policy—which espouses transparency—is not fully adhered to. CDC guidelines (obtained through FOIA) say that in the spirit of a “culture of openness,” employees “may, consistent with this policy, speak to members of the press about their work.” The guidelines also instruct employees to refer reporters to the CDC’s public relations staff “to ensure [reporters] receive requested information within their deadline. It is not appropriate to refer [queries to] the media team ‘for clearance,’” the guidelines noted. Documents, however, show employees are explicitly told in other ways that they may not speak to reporters without permission from the agency’s Atlanta headquarters. “[I]f you are directly contacted by a reporter by phone or e-mail, even for a simple data-related question, the inquiry will have to be routed through Atlanta for clearance,” Jeffrey Lancashire, the CDC’s acting associate director for communications science, wrote in an e-mail to employees in late August. Lancashire’s e-mail, also obtained via a FOIA request, says employees must get clearance from headquarters for “any or all correspondence with any member of the news media...includ[ing] everything from formal interview requests to the most basic of data requests.”
A different CDC press officer e-mailed a colleague to explain that all such requests have to go to headquarters “even if they could be handled by sending a simple link.” This rule is so strict, one CDC employee jokingly wrote to her spouse, an ex-journalist: “Good thing you’re not a reporter anymore! I’d have to clear it through [headquarters] to come home and talk to you.” CDC officials did not answer questions about how the requirement for clearance was consistent with the agency's media policy.
“The idea of speaking to a scientist [at some government agencies] directly is a pipe dream nowadays,” says one journalist who works for a health-related news publication and spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the need to preserve a professional relationship with the CDC, Food and Drug Administration and other federal offices with which she interacts. “I haven't been able to do that kind of thing for a while.” Indeed, the CDC guidance calling for formal clearance of all press inquiries seems to be merely a more explicit statement of a de facto rule that has been in place since early in the Obama administration, if not before. Journalists and media organizations had complained of “censorship by public information officers” well before Trump came to office.
Over the past decade the Society for Professional Journalists, with nearly 10,000 reporters, repeatedly wrote to then-President Barack Obama expressing “deep concern” (pdf) about executive branch practices that control the flow of information. These allegedly included “prohibiting staff from communicating with journalists unless the [latter] maneuver through public affairs offices or through political appointees,” and “refusing to allow reporters to speak to staff at all or delaying interviews past the point that would be useful.”*
Journalists have complained about alleged CDC obstructionism when covering public health events, including a major tuberculosis outbreak in Florida in 2012 and a catastrophic 2014 chemical spill in West Virginia. Following a request to respond to such complaints, the CDC’s public relations office and individual public relations officers declined to grant an interview with any agency employee. They also demanded a list of detailed questions, and then waited until deadline before refusing to answer all but one of them. (When asked about the relationship between CDC's media policy and that of its parent agency, the CDC said that the two were “consistent and complementary.”)
Although journalism groups have been able to wring an occasional apology out of government agencies for the more egregious cases of media encumbrance—such as with the West Virginia chemical spill—there has been no acknowledgment from the Trump administration nor had there been from Obama’s that there might be a systemic problem. Instead, media guidelines insist referrals to the press office are meant to benefit journalists: Press inquiries are routed to the CDC’s public affairs office “[i]n order to assure media the best possible service and information in a timely fashion,” its official policy states. However, Felice Freyer, vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, suggests that forcing all journalist requests through press offices ultimately restricts the flow of information. “Generally it slows things down, delays responses and you wind up getting watered-down, scripted e-mails rather than interviews you can question,” she says. “You can’t get a full and open discussion because political considerations come first.”
Meanwhile government workers at the FDA, are also portraying a separate press-restraining practice as a boon to journalists. In a so-called “close-hold” embargo—exposed by Scientific American in 2016—a few select journalists are given early access to information; in return they agree to hold off on publishing until the agency gives the go-ahead, and to let officials choose whom the reporter may speak with before the embargo expires. Yet e-mails sent to reporters portray this as a favor to journalists—and a courtesy that will not be repeated if reporters slip up. For example, in 2014 an FDA press officer upbraided a New York Times reporter, Sabrina Tavernise, for ingratitude. After the officer “took a lot of crap internally to pull that briefing together in the first place,” the reporter caused offense by mentioning the terms of the close-hold embargo in her story. The result was an implicit threat of being cut off from access: “If this sort of thing is a problem for editors,” the press officer wrote, “we’ll have to rethink how we engage.”
The FDA's use of close-hold embargoes is geared more toward controlling information than granting favors to reporters, according to internal documents. These communications and memos were produced in court in November amid an ongoing lawsuit, Seife v. United States Food and Drug Administration, in which this writer is attempting to obtain information the FDA did not turn over in response to a FOIA request. One internal memo, dated July 9, 2013, and circulated among the FDA’s communications personnel, describes the agency's strategy for getting coverage of its attempts to monitor arsenic levels in various foods. The plan includes “[a] targeted communications approach [that] is intended to set the tone of the story from the outset by providing key reporters with materials and interviews under embargo a day or two in advance.” These reporters would be “under strict conditions to honor the embargo and only reach [out] to third parties that FDA has briefed.” This document also describes asking “individuals/organizations to to[sic] speak supportively of FDA’s announcement.” It is unclear whether these “individuals/organizations” were intended to be the “third parties” that reporters were allowed to speak to. FDA officials declined to grant interviews for this story.
The FDA started occasionally using such embargoes as early as 2011, and continued for several years. On the day before Trump took office last year, the agency acknowledged to the Association of Healthcare Journalists that close-hold embargoes had been employed. But it said they “had not been used recently,” and would no longer be allowed.
These statements remain difficult to verify. Internal government communications reveal such media strategies are often unwritten, allowing an agency some degree of deniability. Further documents from the lawsuit indicate FDA public affairs leadership had stipulated close-hold embargos were “to be communicated verbally” to reporters. Similarly, a CDC e-mail obtained via FOIA shows there should be “no written record” of the diktat that all media inquiries must be cleared by headquarters. Neither agency would comment about why they felt such practices should leave no paper trail.
Collectively, these practices at the FDA and CDC are staunching the flow of important science and policy decisions to the public. As Kathryn Foxhall, a Washington, D.C.–based journalist and member of the Society for Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee, warns: “I know, as a reporter, it means that we’re not just missing stories; we are writing stories that mislead.”
*Editor’s Note: The writer of this article is a member of both the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists.