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The Transparency Wars

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  1. Freedom of Information
When President Obama came into office promising a more open government, we, along with many science journalists, were hopeful that…

When President Obama came into office promising a more open government, we, along with many science journalists, were hopeful that a new era was beginning. For eight years, the Bush Administration had politicized certain topics, such as climate change, by controlling access to information, muzzling scientists and manipulating their findings.

As Obama’s first term draws to an end, however, we are disappointed by the disconnect between promise and delivery. While there have been some improvements, the current administration, like many before it, continues to control both access to public information and to government experts in a variety of areas, from toxic chemicals to birth control devices.

One battle began in December, 2008, when a coal-ash containment pond at a power plant in Tennessee burst, spreading toxic waste across hundreds of acres and dozens of homes. It triggered a wave of coverage about the oversight of similar ponds nationwide. For months, though, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) insisted that releasing a list of 44 “high-hazard” ponds in 26 communities would pose a risk to national security. Eventually, the Obama administration acquiesced, but it was just one victory in the ongoing transparency wars surrounding hazardous materials.

In another unresolved case, the EPA finally promised last December to resume publishing risk management data for facilities that produce, handle and store toxic chemicals, which had been tightly controlled since 9/11, according to Chemical & Engineering News. But the agency reneged in March after the chemical and utilities industries and Republican lawmakers once again raised the specter of a threat to national security. Many journalists feel that human error or a strong earthquake present a greater threat to haz-mat facilities than terrorists do, but playing to the public’s sense of dread has been an effective strategy for the government.

It’s not the only strategy, however. An even more pervasive form of message and information control is the everyday bureaucratic “runaround” that has bedeviled reporters for decades. Indeed, nothing frustrates the nation’s science, environment and biomedical reporters more than the so-called “permissions-and-minders” system whereby interviews with government experts must be cleared by the appropriate press office, often with the stipulation that a press officer will listen in on the conversation.

It’s a system that vexed reporters when the Reagan Revolution swept into Washington in 1981, bringing in a White House that was canny about managing the media and the conservative message it wanted to convey. It permeated throughout the government, particularly in controversial or politically sensitive areas. One of us (Russell) first experienced a press minder after Reagan appointed the outspoken anti-abortion surgeon, Dr. C. Everett Koop, to a government health post and promised to nominate him as Surgeon General. Despite my personal concerns, my paper, The Washington Star, and I accepted a minder in order to get one of the sought-after first interviews with him.

That condition has unfortunately become the rule in many government agencies, regardless of administration. While Obama and journalists alike have called for written press policies and guidelines within federal agencies, in some cases those edicts have created more problems than they have solved. Instead of opening and streamlining communication, they have codified practices such as the dreaded permissions-and-minders system and given the government a convenient mechanism to thwart journalists.

In addition, the digital revolution has made it possible for PR operations to become more sophisticated. Just look at the way that Obama, the most tech-savvy President to date, has used the Internet and social media to bypass the press. At the end of his first year in office, he issued the Open Government Directive to much fanfare, directing all federal agencies to “identify and publish online in an open format at least three high value data sets … and register those data sets via Data.gov.” The White House has used that action to claim the mantle of unparalleled openness, but every science journalist knows that data do not explain themselves. Reporters want to talk to the people who collected the information, analyzed it and incorporated it into public policy—but that’s easier said than done.

In 2011, the Columbia Journalism Review surveyed science reporters from four major journalism organizations. They were asked to rate the Obama and Bush administrations in terms of permissions and minders, access to online databases, and speed of processing Freedom of Information Act requests. While Obama received better marks in every category (especially databases), the progress was marginal at best and neither administration was rated “strong” or “very strong” in any category by a majority of respondents.

One problem is that the decline of mainstream journalism has meant the loss of many specialty jobs in our area. At the same time, press information offices have increased their forces, sometimes by hiring ex-journalists. We have great respect for science press officers who help journalists gain access to information and experts, but public welfare is endangered if scientific information falls prey to government secrecy or delay.

When Felice Freyer, a medical reporter at the Providence Journal, discovered in 2009 that doctors had inserted illegally purchased, unapproved intrauterine devices (a form of birth control) into hundreds of Rhode Island women, she tried for days to get a comment from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which was conducting an investigation. Despite jumping through numerous hoops, including submitting her questions in writing, Freyer never got a response. Four days after her article was published, however, the FDA posted detailed comments on its website.

The incident was just another example of Obama’s unfulfilled promise to create an open government and to “restore science to its rightful place.” This should have been an easy home run for his administration, following, as it did, on the heels of a president who made a name for himself by undermining science that did not fit the conservative mold.

The relationship has never come easy of course, and it behooves journalists to remember that it is their job to shed light on facts and figures that others would prefer to keep in the shadows. But, at a time when many consider information to be the world’s most valuable commodity and when scientific knowledge is playing an ever more direct and important role in people’s daily lives, it has never been more important to insist that power brokers in government, industry and academia pull back the curtain.

Brainard is a science writer and editor of the Columbia Journalism Review’s science section, “The Observatory.” Russell, a veteran science writer, is a CJR contributing editor and longtime member of the Reporters Committee.