You Think China Has a COVID-19 Censorship Problem? We Aren’t Much Better
by Kathryn Foxhall/Article in MedPage Today
Kathryn Foxhall is a writer on health and health policy in the Washington area. She has written on public health, substance abuse, health policy, mental health, pediatrics, FDA, pharmacy and other areas.
The media’s coverage about China’s secrecy with the COVID-19 virus and about the Trump administration’s tightening of U.S. press controls is extremely frightening for more than the obvious reasons. That’s both because the U.S. has had harsh, pervasive controls on the press for years and because the editorials and articles illustrate our absolute determination not to recognize them.
Journalists are officially prohibited from communicating with anyone in the CDC and other federal agencies without the oversight of censors — much to our discredit, we go along with their official title of “public information officer” or PIO. Reporters also usually can’t walk into their buildings, and there are often no systems for obtaining any sort of press credential.
Usually, the prohibitions are followed: agency staff people don’t talk without the censors because they are under harsh prohibitions not to do so. Beyond that, often reporters are not allowed to communicate with the person they request or to anyone at all, in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other federal agencies, even after they go through all the permission-seeking. If any contact is allowed, the PIO may listen in to the conversation and may direct what can be discussed.
These restrictions have surged in the U.S. over the last 25-30 years to the point that they are a cultural norm. Surveys by the Society of Professional Journalists show they are pervasive in federal, state, and local governments; scientific organizations; educational institutions; and police departments. Business and other private organizations are often just as restrictive.
Too Busy, Too Shy, Too Afraid
The many thousands of people in HHS, including those with the best knowledge of the current crisis, are effectively silenced, even after unenlightened news articles are published. There are many things hidden because journalists can’t talk to people without reporting to the authorities. Those unmentioned things might be about budget constraints or political pressures. They may well be something you and I can’t imagine.
HHS agencies tell reporters the staff people they seek are too busy, or they are not used to talking to the press, or they don’t want to talk to the press, or they are afraid their views will be misrepresented.
One federal PIO talked about potentially blocking a reporter’s interview because the requested expert might say something to defend his program against cuts. Other PIOs talk about allowing scientists to only discuss science and policy experts to only discuss policy. Under such restrictions, for journalists to just believe the official story, or believe whatever we can get from whoever will talk, is incredibly reckless, similar to the situation news outlets castigate China for.
During the early AIDS years, I was reporting for public health professionals. It was before the imposition of this “Censorship by PIO.” I found out, by talking to staff people normally and without oversight, that the official story was so controlled it was life-threatening — and there were millions of lives at stake. Journalists having conversations without the knowledge of the authorities — routinely — is critical for ethical journalism.
Consequences of Going Along
The press puts many lives at risk by acquiescing to the constraints. The FDA’s apparent lack of competence on drug manufacturing safety (“Bottle of Lies” is on 2019 best book lists, but it took 10 years to write) and the opioid epidemic are examples in which an agency controlled press access while behind the scenes, the situations quietly turned disastrous. FDA specifically defended its restraints on the press as legal in 2013, as the opioid epidemic was gathering steam. When CDC was found to be mishandling pathogens, the investigating commission said the staff was scared to tell their supervisors. Of course, talking to the press was forbidden.
After a Washington Post story last fall on farm suicides, the reporter said she always has to go through PIOs for the Department of Agriculture, and she suspected any attempt to write about one of their programs would be heavily scrutinized. If “minders” are listening in, what staff person will tell a reporter about problems at the agency? Even worse, for a 2018 story on off-label use of medications, a Washington Post reporter said FDA never allowed them to speak to anyone in the agency, despite repeated requests.
The reasons the press doesn’t tell its audiences about these restraints are complex. However, they start with the long-entrenched work ethic that says the press will always encounter people trying to stop newsgathering, but good reporters get the story anyway. A closer look at that sausage-making process shows actually reporters are successfully fended off from many stories while we get some stories anyway. Those published stories may be accurate, impressive, and ahead of our brethren, but they also can easily be injurious to the public welfare because of all the people the reporter could not talk to.
I also suspect we, the press, don’t object because we need to make a living with the stories the agencies and other entities can give us when they see fit.
Hope and Resistance
Meanwhile, last October, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee voted to kill a proposal to allow an exception for free speech so tiny it actually would have further normalized our massive systems of forced permission to speak. It would have allowed federal scientists the right to speak to reporters without prior permission. Mind you, that was only for federal scientists and only about their research. And they still could be forced to report conversations afterward. But even that was too much.
There is some organized resistance. In one of the latest actions by journalism coalitions, 29 organizations wrote to all members of Congress saying these blockages regularly keep information from the public, agency leadership, and Congress.
Also, a ray of hope appeared last fall when a First Amendment attorney published a 70-page analysis of dozens of Supreme Court and other legal cases and concluded the constraints are simply unconstitutional. The review by Frank LoMonte of the Brechner Center for Public Information said the restraints are unenforceable and “yet still proliferate and still exert a powerful influence on the way employees behave.”