The Bush Administration has assigned press-office "minders" to weather and climate scientists and other employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - making sure they do not talk to the press on their own.
"Go-through-the-press-office" policies have existed at many agencies under many administrations - but traditionally have been honored more in the breach than the observance. Reporters have cultivated inside sources since time immemorial also, just as leakers have cultivated reporters. But many reporters are saying that the Bush administration has drawn the press-office curtain of message control tighter than any administration in recent memory.
Now it emerges that NOAA - an agency often covered by many environmental reporters - has put its policy in writing. That policy not only outlines the duties of NOAA's Office of Public, Constituent, and Intergovernmental Affairs (OPCIA), but also directs NOAA employees on how to handle any contact with the press. It was actually issued June 28, 2004, and published on NOAA's web site, but has only recently drawn media attention.
It states: "NOAA employees must notify the servicing PAO [public affairs officer] or OPCIA before responding to news media inquiries whenever the inquiries:
a. are of national news interest;
b. concern regulatory actions or issues;
c. concern controversial issues;
d. pertain to science or research having known or potential policy implications;
e. involve the release of scientific or technical papers that may have policy implications or are controversial; or
f. involve a crisis or a potential crisis situation."
That would mean, for example, that any NOAA scientist would have to go through the public affairs office for any questions related to hurricanes, global warming, overfishing, wetland loss, barrier island erosion, sea turtles, or endangered whales.
"OPCIA is responsible for coordinating and approving media communications involving NOAA," the policy states. In other words, unless the Public Affairs Office approves something, it doesn't get released.
What happens if a reporter simply calls up a NOAA scientist or program official to ask a question? "Media inquiries, or issues and events that may be expected to lead to media inquiries, should be referred to the Line or Staff Office's servicing Public Affairs Officer (PAO)," the policy states.
"Following an interview, call your servicing PAO to describe the interview and the expected story. Do this promptly. The situation may require the PAO to contact the reporter in order to provide additional information and context."
Does that mean NOAA employees are allowed to talk to press without "minders"? NOAA hardly encourages this. The debriefings are meant for spontaneous interviews NOAA employees could not avoid.
An April 23, 2004, e-mail from NOAA Deputy Administrator James R. Mahoney elaborated on the press policy thus: "I have one suggestion and reminder for all of us: it is always preferable to refer press inquiries to Public Affairs ..., or at least to agree to speak with a reporter only with a Public Affairs representative on the phone also. This will provide for note-taking (and subsequent dissemination) during the discussion, and will allow us to see the bigger picture when a reporter is contacting several persons in NOAA."
The NOAA policy even applies when national news media call the National Weather Service (NWS) seeking to inform their audiences about, for example, the track of a looming hurricane. In a leaked Sept. 29, 2005, memo obtained by The Raw Story, NWS Regional Public Affairs Director reminded NWS staff that media requests for interviews should be logged and sent to the Commerce Dept. (of which NOAA is an agency) for approval. The Raw Story is an independent ad-based online news service based in Cambridge, MA.
NWS staff told Raw Story reporter Larisa Alexandrovna that the Sept. 29 memo was the first time they had ever heard of such restrictions on their contacts with the press.