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Publication date: Feb. 23, 2006

PRESS-OFFICE MUZZLING OF SCIENTISTS ISSUE SPREADS ACROSS MANY AGENCIES

A tale of press-office censorship that began with a Jan. 29, 2006, story in the New York Times about NASA climate scientist James Hansen continued to echo in other federal agencies in following weeks including NOAA and EPA.

While agency leaders declared policies of "openness" and explained press-office intervention in media efforts to interview agency personnel as mere coordination, available documents in many cases belied those explanations. And agency personnel continued to say they were afraid to talk.

Two weeks after NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin had responded to Hansen's complaints with a call for scientific "openness" in his agency, Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin published another piece, detailing how pre-election political pressures in 2004 had clamped the lid on NASA disclosure of findings that could conflict with the administration's policies on climate and other issues.

Griffin came to NASA after the election. He has ordered a review of communications policies by a team of senior administrators and scientists, who have already received complaints about some abuses. But other complaints from NASA staff, some anonymous, have kept rolling in to Revkin at the Times.

A mosaic pattern of similar policies at multiple agencies emerged. On Feb. 11, reporter Juliet Eilperin published a story in the Washington Post, based on Hansen's statement at a public meeting in New York that (quoting the Post) "NOAA insists on having "a minder" monitor its scientists when they discuss their findings with journalists."

Hansen's charges were brushed aside by NOAA's Administrator, V. Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., USN (Ret.).

"My policy since I've been here is to have a free and open organization," Lautenbacher told the Post. "I encourage scientists to conduct peer-reviewed research and provide the honest results of those findings. I stand up for their right to say what they want."

Lautenbacher underlined that statement with a Feb. 14 internal memo to NOAA personnel, saying "Peer reviewed science speaks for itself and doesn't need me or anyone else to interpret or modify the results." It also seemed to leave Hansen some leeway by saying: "We ask only that you specify when you are communicating personal views and when you are characterizing your work as part of your specific contribution to NOAA's mission."

But a very different picture can be seen in NOAA's written media policy, apparently signed by Lautenbacher himself back in June 2004. That policy requires NOAA employees to refer to the public affairs office any "proposed contacts with major news media and radio and television stations or networks for coverage of news features involving NOAA programs or activities; and ... official and non-official scientific and technical papers authored or co-authored by NOAA employees that may result in media interest." The policy outlines many other restrictions and guidelines that would interpose press officers between NOAA personnel and the media.

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 WatchDog reported this Oct. 6, 2005.)

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.

One evidence that the NOAA commitment to openness declared by Lautenbacher may be serious came when the agency corrected a November 2005 article on its website that had previously stated that there was a "consensus" among agency scientists that the unusual intensity of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was due to natural factors rather than manmade global warming. On Feb. 15, 2006, the agency corrected that to acknowledge that some NOAA scientists thought otherwise. But a Feb. 16 Wall Street Journal article that reported the shift also included other examples of political manipulation or muzzling of science.

Similar policies have existed at the Environmental Protection Agency for decades often ignored or circumvented, and rarely documented.

But if public complaints from scientists were causing Bush administration executive agencies to get religion on the issue of openness, EPA did not immediately get the memo. On Feb. 15, 2006, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) published a leaked Feb. 9, 2006, email to all staff from Ann Brown, News Director for the EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD).

"We are asked," the memo stated (although it did not say what superior authority had done the asking), "to remind all employees that EPA's standard media procedure is to refer all media queries regarding ORD to Ann Brown, ORD News Director, prior to agreeing to or conducting any interviews.... Support for this policy also will allow reasonable time for appropriate management response."

But EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson defended the practice of using public affairs officials during interviews with scientists, when asked about it later by GreenWire reporter Darren Samuelsohn. "The reason why we have a public affairs office is to help our agency communicate," he said. "It's not to stifle science. It's not to spin."

EPA spokeswoman Eryn Witcher released a statement the same day noting that the agency has a career scientist on its public affairs staff to "help ensure technical and complicated science is effectively communicated to the public to better protect human health and the environment."

Alternative explanations of EPA's press policies were put forth as the fall 2004 election neared that the lid was being clamped down tight to prevent any damage to President Bush's chances for reelection. At that time, PEER released a memo from then-acting Region V Administrator Bharat Mathur admonishing them: "If you receive any request for information or an interview from a member of the media, you should refer the caller to OPA ... . Please refrain from answering such inquires directly. OPA will determine the appropriate response B and who should respond B after consultation with program staff, and if necessary, after elevating issues for senior-level attention." Region V covers Midwest and Great Lakes states.

A Sept. 17, 2004, Inside EPA article cited similar restrictions in Region VIII (Rocky Mountain states). Citing various sources and documents, the newsletter reported that EPA employees had been told to respond to any questions having political implications with "No comment."

SEJ's First Amendment Task Force conducted a poll of the EPA Regions on their media policies in the summer and fall of 2002 and found considerable variation. Some regions required "minders," while others worked quite flexibly and helpfully with reporters. Most either required or encouraged press contacts with agency personnel to be routed through the press office. Few regions came up with up-to-date written policies. Anecdotally, reporters said access had been more difficult during the Bush administration. The poll did not cover the EPA Headquarters press office. It was published in the Fall 2002 SEJournal.


Last revised January 22, 2013

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