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Reporters complain about FDA press access

By Ed O'Keefe

More than two dozen health reporters complained this week to Food and Drug Administration officials about an agency policy requiring employees to obtain permission before speaking with reporters. The journalists also said they're worried employees might be withholding important information during interviews since FDA press staffers often listen to the conversations.

"Nearly all prior administrations allowed open communication between agency employees and the media. The FDA should restore this policy," the letter said.

Requiring government employees to obtain permission before speaking with reporters is nothing new -- The Eye has endured this miserable policy too many times to mention -- but it is new at FDA, the letter said.

More from the letter:

Public information officers can play an important role in answering questions and facilitating interviews. But when they forbid, delay or monitor contact between reporters and employees, they interfere with the public's right to know and can delay access to timely information necessary to protect and advance public health. Usually the most accurate information comes from federal employees closest to the facts, not a go-between. These practices are a disservice to Americans.
In keeping with President Obama's promise to make government more transparent and accountable, we hope FDA will end these harmful practices and restore the free flow of information.

FDA spokesman George Strait -- himself a former ABC News medical correspondent -- insisted there is no "written policy" requiring employees to notify his office about interactions with reporters. But he said reporters that reach out to his office first will get the timely assistance and information they need.

"Our deadlines are your deadlines," he said. "Those aren’t necessarily the deadlines of a scientist who’s in a laboratory. We understand that, and frankly, the scientists like for us to be able to handle that part of the world."

“It’s sort of like when a White House reporter wants something out of the White House," he said, suggesting White House reporters call the White House press office when they need most of their information.

Um, no.

The letter's co-signers include the American Society of News Editors, Radio Television Digital News Association and Betty Ann Bowser, health correspondent for the "PBS NewsHour." No other reporters from national news outlets signed the letter.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | December 3, 2009; 3:52 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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My agency, also part of HHS, has written guidelines requiring us to obtain clearance before speaking with the press. Usually they ask for 'talking points' that then have to be cleared at the HHS level. Also the topics that we can discuss are restricted. And if a reporter calls asking to speak to a specific individual, the press office will want to know what the questions are and then will decide if the inquiry should be directed to a different person, not the person that the reporter wanted to speak to.

Posted by: Luciana1 | December 3, 2009 7:07 PM | Report abuse

These policies violate the spirit, if not also the letter of the First Amendment, which guarantees that government may not abridge either the right of free speech or of the press. Over the years, courts have modified and narrowed this for government employees, but the HHS written guidelines have yet to be tested in court. If they were, they would likely fail.

Ed O'Keefe's column fails to distinguish between the special, niche healthcare journalists who write for limited and FDA-informed audiences, and the general media journalists who write for mass audiences. The latter have little interest in getting past designated agency spokespersons and down into the subterranean technicalities of regulatory issues. The former, however, live or die by such arcane topics and the personalities engaged in administering them within agencies like FDA.

The new media-access policies have been in effect since the George W. Bush administration, when security and government secrecy blended. Prior to that, trade press reporters made good livings from direct access to individual FDA employees on an off-the-record basis.

This kind of journalism is facing extinction, notwithstanding the First Amendment.

Posted by: jim5 | December 4, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

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