The United States government often criticizes other countries for controlling their media, but over the past thirty years, it is the US media that has become tightly controlled. We speak with Kathryn Foxhall with the Society of Professional Journalists who explains how government agencies from the local to the national levels, educational and scientific institutions and police departments restrict access by media to officials and use minders to monitor what those officials say. Foxhall describes how this lack of access to information hinders ethical journalism, how it has impacted the stories we read and what people are doing to push back. This is particularly important during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic because reporters are being denied access to health officials.
Kathryn Foxhall has been a reporter focused in great part on federal agencies for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. In recent years she has worked as a point person with the Society of Professional Journalists and others on the issue of agencies, businesses and others forcing controls on staff communications with reporters. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources on the issue of “Media Relations Office Censorship” or “Censorship by PIO”
The Society of Professional Journalists has a website with history, case studies and surveys on the issue.
SPJ’s latest resolution on the issue, passed by the society’s full council and calling the controls censorship and authoritarian, is here.
Kathryn Foxhall’s opinion piece in MedPage Today is here.
First Amendment attorney Frank LoMonte’s recent, extensive analysis says the controls are unconstitutional and many courts have said so. SPJ’s press release on it is here.
Kathryn Foxhall’s blog with some links is here.
The “Media Relations Handbook for Government, Associations, Nonprofits and Elected Officials,” says:
“However, it must be made clear to all staff that they should deal with the media only when authorized by the public relations team. Loss of control over communications can be a disaster for an organization, leading to public controversy and loss of credibility.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Frequently Asked Questions” for reporters says, “Why is it necessary to go through a press officer when I want to talk with a CDC expert?” “Press officers are here to make sure your questions get answered by the best spokesperson for your story, within your deadline.” Full statement here.
Margaret Flowers (MF): You’re listening to clearing the fog speaking truth to expose the forces of greed with Margaret Flowers
Kevin Zeese (KZ): flowers and Kevin
MF: So this week we interviewed Kathryn Foxhall. She is a longtime journalist and she’s with the Society of Professional Journalists.
KZ: Yeah, and she is very interesting. We’re all so concerned about censorship of the media and the manipulation of what we’re told, and we worried about the algorithms on Facebook and on Google and whistleblowers and corporate influence but this is an interesting angle that has existed for a while, but not a lot of people have heard about it.
MF: And it’s getting worse and it’s causing harm, especially in this time of a pandemic.
KZ: She talks about how it’s very common for reporters to have to talk to experts, scientists with a minder monitoring what they say, so we don’t get the whole story.
MF: Yeah, and it goes even deeper than that, but stick around for that interview so you can find out why we’re not being told the full story. But before we get to that interview, it’s important that we talk about some things that are in the news. And of course what’s on everybody’s mind right now is the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. So let’s talk about a few things that are related to that. One thing that’s interesting is that, of course, if you look at the numbers around the world of how many cases countries have, how they’re handling it, you see that the United States has now far outstripped every other country approaching 400,000 cases and over 11,000 deaths.
KZ: More than quadruple most countries.
MF: And so it’s no surprise, I guess, that were suddenly seeing in the corporate media all this talk about how actually China’s numbers are much higher, but they’re just hiding it.
KZ: Yes. we have to say China is lying when in fact a story in the Washington Post this week said that in fact, we’re not being told all the truth about deaths, that the Center for Disease Control only counts deaths when there’s a test that shows the person had COVID-19.
MF: And of course A lot of people are not being tested.
KZ: And a lot of people aren’t even going to the hospital, and they’re dying at home. And so, you know, these death numbers are high but they’re not even the whole story.
MF: And that’s in the United States. In fact, Mark Levine, who’s a New York City council member. He’s the chair of their health committee, said that in just New York City, 180 to 195 New Yorkers are dying a day in their homes, and that they aren’t able to test them. They don’t have enough tests. And so they’re dying of likely COVID-19, but that’s not being counted in the numbers. But what’s interesting about this claim in the corporate media, there was an excellent article by FAIR that talks about… they’re quoting this this intelligence report… two intelligence officials who remain anonymous say that the report has found that China is hiding its numbers. They won’t reveal anything else because they say the report is secret, and they won’t give their name. So, how are we supposed to believe a report that is so secretive?
KZ: That’s what’s so wild about it. It’s so widespread… this unsourced report… these newspaper stories with no sources, it’s so widespread. I know I find that on social media when I post anything about the numbers, [people say] “well you can’t trust those numbers in China.” Why? Because they read these news reports that say China is lying, with no sources. We have to always remember, we get news about China, the strategy of the United States, the National Security strategy is “great power conflict.” And China is a number one rival. Russia number two. And so everything we’re about Russia and China we have to take with very heavy grains of salt.
MF: Yeah. I went to highlight another article written in TheGrayZone, and he looks into where this false media narrative first came from, and it came from this outlet called Radio Free Asia, which was created by the United States government as a propaganda arm, and is actually overseen by the US Department of State, and he says that there’s a woman her name is Jennifer Zhang. She’s with the Falun Gong. Of course the Falun Gong is a far-right, anti-China organization, and she was tweeting out exactly what they were reporting on Radio Free Asia, the day before Radio Free Asia reported it. So this sounds like it’s a real false distraction meant to demonize China and take the attention off of how badly the United States is coping with this crisis.
KZ: Well, you know outlets like that Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe… these are all US propaganda arms trying to confuse people in other countries about what’s really going on. The interesting thing is a few years ago in the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act, the Congress allowed for the military to use those psyops programs domestically, against people of the United States.
MF: They content was too good to hold back from people in the United
KZ: States. Yeah. So now we have two with all this kind of news again when it attacks China and Russia we’ve got is this psyops against people United States to create anti-china feeling so we can escalate conflict.
MF: Right, and of course, it’s coming around the same time that Wuhan is being opened up again, people are allowed out of quarantine. The shops are opening up and China has basically done an excellent job of dealing with the crisis. The World Health Organization has applauded China for what they did and and they actually sent a team there to investigate. There have been studies in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association looking at the data from China. No reports of any irregularities in those studies. They’ve been looking at what we could learn from China.
KZ: Yeah, so we don’t have to even believe China. It’s these third, Western sources or European sources like the World Health Organization, going to China, seeing for themselves and reporting back to us. And so when that kind of reporting is happening in peer-reviewed journals and the World Health Organization, and we hear this other propaganda about how China is lying, we’ve got to just say “what’s going on. here?” Our alarm Bells have to ring when we hear these anti-china comments.
MF: Right. And of course another story that people may be aware of is the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a naval ship that was in Guam on a just a kind of a fun tour…
KZ: It’s a very weird tour what they were doing. They were in Vietnam. They were doing crafts, and music, and entertainment. It’s part of the US trying to get control of Vietnam by having friendly soldiers get off the ship. Who knows?
MF: While they’re there 114 of the sailors were tested positive for COVID-19. There was a lieutenant, a commander of the ship, who wrote a letter internally within the Navy through the chain of command saying that we have these cases. We need to do something. This is not a good environment that’s conducive to isolating. The bunks are very close to each other. And that letter got leaked to the newspaper. So what did the Navy do?
KZ: They fired him? mean the guy tries to protect people from COVID-19 and he’s the first official fired during this pandemic in the United States for trying to protect people. And this comes on the heels of the military saying we are not going to announce how many people in the military we have the virus. That’s become a national security secret and the sad part of the story is… just announced as we started tape this the show… The lieutenant has now tested positive for COVID-19 himself. By the way, just one more thing… the video of him leaving the ship with the sailors giving a standing ovation to him, cheering him loudly and resoundingly… he’s leaving the ship as he’s fired. They are so happy he took the stand he did for them to protect their lives, and he has paid with his career.
MF: That’s right. Other news is that SouthCom has formed an agreement with Brazil. Brazil is going to be a new, non-NATO ally to the United States, and is now going to be our major center for the militarization of Latin America. Just after the United States charged president Maduro of Venezuela, and I think 14 other members of the government and Military, with this bogus charge of our Narco-trafficking, the US then started announcing that it’s going to be sending naval ships and other military to Latin America… the largest military mobilization to Latin America in 30 years. Does this remind you of anything?
KZ: It reminds me of Panama. 30 years ago was Panama. And it reminds me of the how US invaded Panama based on drug charges against Noriega. Now, the charges against Noriega are very different than the charges against Maduro, because Maduro has actually been fighting the drug war very aggressively. Venezuelans are not a pro-drug country. They are actually fighting the drug war. Now it’s very interesting that Brazil is getting involved because, not reported by in the media yet, but if you search for it, you’ll find stories from Brazil about how the military has taken over the government in Brazil.
MF: Yeah, that’s interesting when she talked about that.
KZ: It’s a very interesting story. Bolsonaro was in a conflict with the Health Minister. Bolsonaro was calling the virus a cold, just the sniffles, urging that Brazil relax the restrictions, and allow people to go to stores and restaurants, and the Health Minister saying, “No. No. No. We can’t do that.” And the entire administration sided with the health Minister. Then there were Governors calling for Bolsonaro’s resignation, the progressive members of the legislature calling for Bolsonaro’s resignation. Then there is a meeting with the military and evidently the chief of staff who is a general has now become the so-called acting president. Now acting president does not exist in the very Brazilian Constitution. So it’s a newly created position. They do have vice president who’s also a general, but I guess they didn’t put him in charge. This Chief of Staff now has essentially become the acting president, but Bolsonaro keeps his title, but reportedly has no power. Now, they’ve called other Latin American countries to let them know they should not return any calls from Bolsonaro, but this has not been confirmed by Bolsonaro or by the military in Brazil. But it has been reported in multiple places that this is occurred. So Bolsonaro may be out. It’s not clear exactly what the next steps are. Will there be an election in the future? How long will this acting president be in power? All those issues have not clarified.
MF: Right. Sounds like a whole unique situation. And it’s also not clear what the politics are going to be, how this is going to impact Brazil’s cooperation with Southern command, although I imagine that this particular chief of staff was actually formally a military attache from Brazil to the United States and spent time in Washington, likely to develop those relationships in Washington. So I’m not expecting much change from that.
KZ: And the Brazilian military is not one to be all that proud. A lot of racism in the military. A lot of violence, and you don’t really want those people in charge of the government.
MF: So the United States SouthCom… one of the reasons that they are using to legitimize their major mobilization and Latin America, is that China and Russia are there.
KZ: Now we can’t violate the Monroe Doctrine, but sending more ships based on this phony narco-trafficking charge, which they have no evidence for… I read the indictment. There’s no source provided as far as the allegations they make, and of course they will probably never go to trial unless they capture Maduro and kidnap him and bring him to the United States. Then we might see a trial, but that’s unlikely.
MF: And I don’t think I would trust that trial very much either.
KZ: Of course not, but it’s interesting that this movement of ships to Latin America is happening just after this incident with the Teddy Roosevelt in Guam. Should we really be putting people on ships at the time of this virus, based on a phony narco-trafficking charge, and putting people at risk? I mean, what are they doing? It makes no sense.
MF: I think it’s another example of the US military showing that they don’t actually have a concern for the lives of their soldiers, that you know, they’re just kind of widgets. They’re cogs. They are part of the military machine and they’re expendable and it’s sad. I know members of the military who feel that way.
KZ: Well, a lot of peace activist veterans became peace activists because of their experience in the military. They saw exactly what you described. They see war crimes. They see orders they shouldn’t be following. This is a fraudulent military escalation against President Maduro because president Maduro has survived everything they have thrown at him, and they have thrown a lot at him. Assassinations, economic war, terrorist attacks. It’s just incredible.
MF: attacking the infrastructure.
KZ: Right. Even if even appointing a phony president.
MF: Right. They continue to claim he’s the president even though he has absolutely no power. So this is actually to me a very scary situation. You and I have been to Venezuela and we have a, you know, friendship with social movements that are down in Venezuela, with media down in Venezuela, and to see the United States… The United States has been trying for 20 years to overthrow the government of Venezuela. As you said, nothing that the US has done has succeeded in overthrowing the government, although it’s caused a lot of destruction. It’s caused a lot of excess deaths, as we talked about with Alfred de Zayas a couple of weeks ago. And now to see this outright military aggression makes me very concerned that the US Could invade Venezuela at a time when they think that most people are not paying attention. People are focused on, as they should be, on fighting this pandemic. At the same time that the head of the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guiterez, has called for a global ceasefire, the US is sending warships to surround Venezuela. So president Maduro wrote a letter to the people of the United States of America, and it’s I think it’s something that people won’t hear about. They won’t hear on the corporate media. So if it’s okay with you, I’d like to read that letter.
KZ: I’m looking forward to that.
MF: Okay. So here’s the letter. It says: To the people of the United States of America. For weeks now the world stands still, trying to control a pandemic that without any doubt is the greatest challenge we have faced together, as a society and as an International Community. Our priority is confronting it, as is the priority of the people of the United States. Fortunately in Venezuela we have been able to count on some advantages. We took very early measures of social distancing and amplified testing, relying on our free and public healthcare system that counts doctors throughout the country with what we call family. We also rely on the invaluable community-based organizations to help raise social awareness and support the most vulnerable sectors. The solidarity of Cuba China and Russia, and the support of the World Health Organization, has likewise allowed us to obtain necessary medical supplies, despite Donald Trump’s illegal sanctions. In expressing my solidarity to you in this important historic challenge, as well as our consternation and grief for the consequences of the pandemic in the United States, I also have the obligation to make you aware that as the world focuses on dealing with the COVID-19 emergency, the Trump Administration once again, instrumentalizing institutions in order to fulfill electoral objectives, and based on infamies under the pretext of the War on Drugs, has ordered the largest US military deployment in our region in the last 30 years with the purpose of threatening Venezuela and bringing to our region a costly, bloody military conflict of indefinite duration. In the run-up to this fallacious maneuver, last March 26th, William Barr an Attorney General of questionable independence, who recommended the 1989 invasion of Panama against Noriega, and helped cover up the irregularities of the Iran-Contra scandal, filed without showing any evidence whatsoever, accusations of drug trafficking towards the United States against myself and Senior Venezuelan state officials, even though data from the Department of Defense itself showed that, unlike Colombian and Honduras, two of Washington’s allied countries, Venezuela is not a primary transit country towards the United States. It is clear that the Trump Administration is creating a smokescreen to cloud the improvised and erratic handling of the pandemic in the United States. The most optimistic forecast shows that close to two hundred and forty thousand souls will be lost in the United States. From the beginning Donald Trump downplayed and even denied it, the same way he has done with climate change. Today the crisis in the United States aggravates simply because, despite having the resources, he is not willing to transform the healthcare system to prioritize full care for the population, instead of profit-based private medicine, insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry.
We in Venezuela do not want an armed conflict in our region. We want brotherly relations of cooperation, exchange and respect. We cannot accept war threats nor blockades, nor can we accept the intention of installing an international tutelage that violates our sovereignty and disavows the progress made in the last year, in the sincere political dialogue between the government and a large part of the Venezuelan opposition, that wants political solutions, not oil wars. Based on the foregoing I call upon the people of the United States to stop this madness, to hold your officials accountable, and to force them to focus their attention and their resources on urgently addressing the pandemic. I also ask together an end to the military threats, an end the illegal sanctions and blockade that restrict the access to humanitarian goods that are so necessary for the country today. I wholeheartedly ask you not to allow your country to be dragged once again into another unending conflict, another Vietnam, another Iraq, but this time closer to home. The peoples of the United States and Venezuela are not as different as their lies intend us to believe. We are people’s seeking a more just, free and compassionate society. Let us not let the particular interests of minorities, blinded by ambition, to set us apart. “We,” as our leader, Hugo Chavez, once said, “share the same dream. The dream of Martin Luther King is also the dream of Venezuela and its revolutionary government.” I invite you to struggle together in order to make that dream come true. No to United States war against Venezuela. No more criminal sanctions. We want peace. – Nicolas Maduro
KZ: I can see why someone who read that letter, someone who sent us a message in response that letter on our website, said it brought her to tears. Powerful letter.
MF: We’ve talked about this before. We are citizens of empire. The United States is an empire. We live in that Empire. The United States is increasing sanctions, military aggression, blocking aid to countries… literally the United States blocked a plane from China to bring equipment, and blocking [shipments] also to Canada.
KZ: And we take the goods for ourselves, intended to those other countries. It’s piracy.
MF: Right. We have a responsibility because this is our country. This is our government doing this in our name. We have a responsibility to take action. And so I think that’s why that letter is so important to me because it’s a letter of common sense. It’s what we need to be doing. We need to stop the aggression and work together globally to confront this crisis. And so it’s hard to do action when we’re stuck in our houses, when members of congress are unreachable, their staff are not in the office. And so we launched a social media campaign.
KZ: A stay at home action.
MF: Exactly. But we hope that it will be massive because everybody with a camera and a computer can participate, or camera phone that has internet can participate. And basically we’re asking you to make a sign, take a picture, and then tweet that out to your member of congress to the president and use the hashtag #FightCOVIDnotVenezuela.
KZ: Yeah, we took pictures of us holding different signs and you can see them on popular resistance ,and then we put it on Twitter and on Facebook and urged other people do the same thing. We’re working with other groups on this, but we need people to take action. One thing that we found with Maduro… and this is not the first time he’s done this. [He wrote] another open letter and another video to the people of the United States, previously.
MF: And he recently did a letter to the world.
KZ: He recognizes the power of social movements. Social movements have made Venezuela what it is. How they could break the United States, elect Hugo Chavez, keep Maduro in power, stand up to US Aggression. Social movements are the key. He recognizes they’re very powerful and they can be very powerful here as well. He recognizes our power more than we recognize our power. I hope that people take that letter to heart. We publish it on PopularResistance.org as well, in the slider on top, so you can read it again,. But take it to heart and take action. And tell everyone all your networks and your friends to join in that action. We don’t want a war with Venezuela. And by the way, the president of Iran, President Rouhani, wrote a very similar letter, an open letter to the United States where he said “history will judge us for what we allowed our country do.”
MF: Right. And of course the United States is also talking about escalating its aggression towards Iran. So we have to be vigilant about that. There is some good news. I mean, there are countries in the world that are coming to the aid of other countries .Cuba’s a big one, of course, because basically they have this huge group of doctors that they send out internationally all the time. China is showing real leadership in this, now that they’ve controlled their epidemic there. They are giving supplies.
KZ: They’e sent hundreds doctors as well.
MF: Right and they’ve they’ve been providing aid now to 89 countries including the United States. They sent a plane load of supplies to New York. I understand.
KZ: They have the Silk Road. Now they’re calling it the Health Silk Road, that goes from China to the world, providing equipment and health professionals and advice, to try to get control of this virus the way that China did.
MF: And there’s a real movement globally towards ending the sanctions, which we’ve talked about before. They’re not actually sanctions. It’s economic, coercive measures that are illegal, that the United States is imposing on over 30 countries. A third of the world’s population. And other countries have been reluctant to stand up to the United States and violate the the coercive measures even though they’re illegal and they don’t have any requirement that they have to follow them. But because I’ve been worried about retaliation other countries have been obeying them. But there’s a break in that now, and we’re seeing more and more… we’re seeing the United Nations saying that this sanctions should be ended. We’re seeing European countries theG7 plus China have come out with a statement against sanctions, and then just last week the UK, Germany and France used this system that they had set up. It’s a system that allows them to trade with Iran and bypass the US dollar, so they don’t have to go through any of the financial Institutions that are worried about violating the sanctions. They were able to send medical supplies and medicines to Iran.
KZ: And that could be a major, major breakthrough. Now, Europe had been developing this system to bypass US finance and had been afraid to use it, but I think the combination the coronavirus and the US escalation of sanctions and threats of war, has made it possible finally for Europe to break the United States, start using the system, and that could be a major change in global finance. If Europe and Russia start to use this kind of system to bypass US domination of finance, it could really undermine the US hegemony. Dollar diplomacy could be severely weakened, and the fact that one third of the people the world are subjected to illegal, unilateral, coercive measures… these illegal economic wars by the United States, is something the United States should be very worried about. They should be back-paddling quickly, rather than escalating.
MF: The US and Others have written about this. It’s actually kind of showing the world what it really is, and I think as this shakes out …this global recession or depression… this pandemic… when they shake out and you see that the United States is selfish, you know, stealing things for itself, is punitive, is not a cooperative member of the world community, I think it’s going to hurt the United States. And you see China showing real leadership and doing the things that I think people the United States who believed in the whole American Myth might have believed that the United States was supposed to be doing.
KZ: And Russia is doing it as well. Russia is also sending health equipment to Italy/ And you know the other thing about this… at the same time all that’s happening, the other thing that’s happening is people are seeing the incompetence of the United States. And so how can you be a global leader when you can’t even manage your own country. The incompetence of the Trump Administration in responding to this virus is so immense. SARS-2 first became known about, at the World Health Organization, in late December. In January, on January 3rd the Health and Human Services secretary learned about it. The National Security Council learned about it. It wasn’t until January 7th that China actually said it was a coronavirus. And wanted Donald Trump do? He killed Soleimani. He ignored this virus. He said it was a hoax. You’ll get over it. Go to work. You can get over it. Spring will take care it. It’s not real. He minimized it and did nothing until late March. Two and a half months is literally deadly for thousands and thousands of people. He should be knocked out of running for re-election, just based on this incompetence. It’s shameful the way he’s behaved, and it continues.
MF: It , because the United States, while other countries who saw the possibility of a pandemic coming when this virus took hold… they stopped exporting their medical supplies. They started stockpiling them. The United States has not stopped the export of medical supplies. In fact, there is a ventilator company that is based in New Jersey that the United States invested in to develop a low-cost ventilator, and instead they’re selling them at a higher price that they could get in the US, to other countries. You see that the president is playing favoritism, risking people’s lives, sending some states aid, and other states that are blue states, are not getting aid. The governor of Massachusetts had to talk the New England Patriots into using their airplane to go to China to get supplies because Trump wouldn’t send the applies to Massachusetts. We see how he redefined what the national stockpile means.
KZ: Jared Kushner of foolishly mis-described it in a press conference saying that the stockpile is not meant for the states, when in fact the mission statement of the stockpile said it was for the states.
MF: Well who would it be for if it’s not for the statews?
KZ: And then the Trump Administration redefined the stockpile after that to say that the states have to take care of themselves first. And this is a secondary, supplement to the states protecting themselves. And it’s so bad Trump gets up there and he says, “no one saw this coming.” Oh my goodness. Does he know anything? The reality is HHS put out reports saying that we were not ready for a pandemic one when it came. The Pentagon did. the same thing. The National Security Council did it. There was even a pandemic playbook developed after the Ebola virus and other previous viruses… a pandemic playbook on how the United States should react and handle it… step-by-step instructions from past experiences on how the US should act. What did the Trump Administration do? They left that playbook on the shelf. They never even looked at it. Anthony Fauchi said in 2017 that he was sure a pandemic would come during the Trump Administration. And then he gets up there and says no one predicted it! Everyone predicted it. And they put out plans for a deal with it. It’s just abysmal. You know, Taiwan has the one of the best records on dealing with this virus. Why? Because they went through SARS, and developed a playbook on how to handle it, and they have been following that playbook, and they have controlled the virus. The US ignored the virus, didn’t follow the playbook, and now thousands of people are dying. That is Trump and the Trump administration’s fault.
MF: Our hearts go out to everybody out there who is suffering because of this pandemic, especially people in hard-hit cities like New York City and the health professionals who are out there taking care of people, and the essential workers who are out there continuing to go to work and make sure that we have food and our trash is picked up and all the important things that we need to to continue to survive. There are a lot of workers around the country who are striking because they’re not being protected in their jobs and we need to support them. There was a bus driver in Detroit who was part of the effort there to try to get protective equipment for bus drivers because people on the bus were coughing and sick. And sadly that bus driver died of COVID-19. So this is a real crisis and we have to do what we can to support each other right now. Remember it’s physical distancing, but social solidarity is critical at this time. Please please take care of yourself. Take care of your neighbors. Take care of your family. If someone in your community is hungry, feed them. This is a huge economic downturn which we didn’t even get to talk about a lot. But as I’m sure people know the unemployment claims doubled last week from the astounding 3.3 million the week before to 6.6 million and that’s still under counting,
KZ: These are depression type numbers.
MF: numbers. These are never seen before in the United States type numbers.
KZ: In a hundred years. we have not seen this level.
MF: So it’s important that we help each other get through this. Take care of yourself. Find ways to connect with others in your community so you don’t feel so isolated. And we need to get information. We need accurate information. And that’s why this upcoming interview with Kathryn Foxhall is so important, because we need to understand why reporters are not able to give us the facts that we need to have.
KZ: Why reporters can’t get the facts to give us the information we need to have.
MF: Right. So let’s take take a short musical break and then we’ll come back with that interview with Kathryn Foxhall.
And now we turn to our guests Kathryn Foxhall. Kathryn is a writer on health and health policy in Washington DC, and she’s with the Society of Professional Journalists. Thank you for taking time to join us Catherine.
Kathryn Foxhall (KF): Thank you very much.
KZ: You really wrote about the COVID-19 virus and talked about how reporters are having a hard time talking to government health officials because of restrictions. I want you to describe what was going on with regard to talking to health officials.
KF: Okay. Well, this is a phenomenon that is in our society and it’s important to understand that goes way back. I mean, I would say I personally, and some other reporters I knew, began to get the first inkling of it in the mid-90s. So it’s this restriction that grew up, that when a reporter calls an agency, including an agency like the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, or the Food and Drug Administration, you cannot any longer just call a person and talk to them. You as a reporter have to go through the public information office. It has become our censors. In other words, the rules are: you never say a word to anyone without oversight from the agency. And actually that often turns into oversight from the political entities. This started and it’s become tighter and tighter to the point that I would say most reporters just go to the public information office What this means among other things is that no one is allowed to speak to us in confidence. The level of contact we have is cut down I would say by over 90% because you have to go through this permission-seeking process. There are only a few public information officers in any agency. That means there’s a tiny hole in a wall that is between journalists and sources. And there are many on either side, but there’s only so many that will get through that hole in any particular length of time. So this has been frightening, and there has been a number of journalists working on it, opposing it, and we have gone to both the Obama and the Trump Administrations, and told congress about it. But it’s become so much part of our society that we haven’t taken it seriously. So now we have COVID. So what does it have to do with COVID? We have spent a couple decades not understanding these agencies very well, not getting a chance to understand when something might be going wrong in these agencies, and we still don’t have that access. You see excellent stories in various publications. This morning both the New York Times and The Washington Post have excellent stories. Unfortunately you have to understand they still don’t have normal access. And they’re still, for instance, ten thousand plus people in CDC who are basically silenced. Unless they want to put their careers at risk, they don’t talk to a reporter without the oversight. So as good as those stories are, the chances are good. They’re also missing stuff.
MF: So you have been covering health for a while now. And you were covering the HIV epidemic back in the 1980s. Can you talk about what it was like then for you and why that was important?
KF: Well, HIV is a dramatic example of the fact that there is an official story and there are many many unofficial stories. All the time. It’s not unusual. It’s not just instances. A big scandal. It’s just a constant phenomenon. It’s kind of like if you talk to your cousin at Thanksgiving about her work in a particular agency. you’re going to get a whole different vision than if you just listen to the official story. During the early HIV period, I just very quickly learned that you do talk to people and confidence. Otherwise, you don’t understand what is happening. As a order you need to talk to people in confidence. And my go-to story is… one time I spent some time with a person high up in the CDC. This was the early years of the HIV epidemic and I was talking to him about a budget story. And for some time he gave me the standard, official story, you know, “the program will be okay. We will do more with less.” Etc. And then I just by happenstance said, “doctor, is there something you could tell me if your name weren’t attached to it?” And he exploded. And he tell me how the program worked. And he told me what would be at risk if it were cut. And of course he had his own biases, but then again he was giving me hard cold facts that otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten in a few hours I had to put that story together. I was just appalled because I was within inches of writing that story as basically the official story that he was giving me. It would have been accurate. It would have been well sourced. In other words, I would have had the name of a high-level city official, and it would have just been as immoral as putting barriers in front of first responders. It would have been misleading the public health people I was writing about. It would have been better had I never been born. With all those millions of lives at risk to mislead people, .even when you’re being accurate, it would have just been completely immoral.
KZ: That sounds so similar to today.
KF: I fear that it is very very similar to today.
KZ: Particularly with the problem. I mean, we’re in an election year , and Trump’s re-election is going to be determined by, in large part, how he responds to this virus. And there seems to have been a lot of mistakes made. They first heard about this in December, late December, and didn’t do any or mid-March. And I imagine that a lot of people in CDC, HHS and other health departments, other health agencies, that are very concerned about this and would say things that would be very critical. But how can someone be critical when they have a minder next to them? They can’t criticize their agency.
KF: That’s exactly the point. And it’s just very very scary because in other words the press can be completely accurate. They can report things as they are happening and really not get the point. We basically at this moment have 10,000 people in CDC who are silenced. I cannot imagine anything more dangerous, and I will tell you though… I hope our profession of journalism answers responsible for this, as I do the insiders and the politicians, because we have known this for years, and we have just been calling the PIOs, asking for interviews, knowing these interviews are highly controlled, not ever telling the public about that, and oftentimes just in one way of the other, whether it’s by a lie or whatever. just being blocked. We’ve known this and known this and known this. And when you look back on the 2019 coverage of FDA and CDC, going back, you will see a lot of “FDA approved a drug. FDA had a meeting. CDC released a study.” Okay, those circumstances are… the agency pushed out some information. It comes out of a circumstance where all those people behind that can’t talk, or can’t talk without a minder. We publish that information anyway, without warning the public that these are the circumstances. Yes, FDA said this, but no. We know nothing about what all those people on the inside might be worried about, might be laughing about, might be stunned that the agency is saying that. I know, I know that the excellent reporters who are putting out information right now, if they could walk into these agencies normally, if they could talk to people on the phone without the oversight ,within hours or days they would just have their socks knocked off. I mean, it would just be an amazing story that the public doesn’t have at this point.
MF: Wow. Knowledge is power, and so I’m sure the powerful are very interested in controlling that knowledge. So you’ve written… I mean part of it is the public information officers that control who reporters can talk to them.
KZ: That’s the PIO.
MF: Right They sit in on the interviews so that they can control the narrative of the interview. You’ve talked about how some agencies don’t even have a way for press to get credentialed. Can you kind of talk about how widespread this is? I mean it goes beyond the CDC and the FDA. How widespread is this kind of control of the narrative in the United States?
KF: It’s very widely… It’s pervasive now. I don’t think I’m an agency by agency survey has ever been as ever been done. But you you hear about it everywhere with reporters who cover the federal agencies. But the Society of Professional Journalists sponsored seven surveys over five years, and those showed that this is pervasive across the country. Organizations who have scientists, schools, all kinds of educational institutions, local and state governments, and most chilling to me, police departments, crime reporters. We surveyed reporters in several instances, and we surveyed the PIOs themselves in other instances. And PIOs very openly in terms of police departments said things like, “well, we sit it on the interview to ensure it stays within the parameters that the chief wants.” I’m not sure how we got here, but there’s a great belief in censorship throughout these entities in the country.
KZ: I think that’s even particularly stronger if you talk about, for example, the intelligence agencies, Pentagon, National Security. There you’ll see even more intensely and it comes to mind to me because I’m thinking about how how does this kind of censorship relate to the censorship that we see when whistleblowers are being prosecuted. What are your thoughts on this? That’s the other way these poor government officials who have a story to tell take the risk of blowing the whistle by releasing documents or, you know, another way is getting information out. What are your thoughts about whistleblowers and this policy together?
KF: I think these various controls and various angles from which we can look at the controls, are terrifically interlaced The angle with the whistleblower problem is that if people become official whistleblowers, and it becomes known that they have released information. they will be persecuted pretty much. That’s what we found out. And people are scared to go that route and talk to whoever through the roots of whistleblowers.
MF: So you’re saying even journalists are afraid to talk to whistleblowers.
KF: No. What I’m saying is people within agencies are scared to talk to whistleblowers. This sort of extends that whole fear, what I’m talking about in terms of having guards on any kind of contact with reporters. This sort of extends that control and that fear to anything and everything. In other words it used to be natural, .not a big thin,g not a whistle blowing instance, for someone to just talk to a reporter, most of the time I would say. It’s not a matter of wrongdoing or malfeasance or whatever. It was just an education about the agency. They are forbidden to even do that now.
MF: So what is the impact on journalists? Is this something that journalists talk about within their circles? About the impact that is having? I mean, you’ve written that without access you can’t have ethical journalism. Is this something that people are feeling?
KF: The idea that without this access it’s harder to do ethical journalism is a point that I’m pushing right now very hard. Journalists talk about this a great deal among themselves. And that includes journalists from the most prominent a news organization. We’ve had whole sessions on it in journalism organizations, in journalism meetings. But somehow our other we don’t tell the public in any big way. Why is that? Maybe it’s because we don’t want to tarnish our own brand. We don’t want to say this is the real problem. We don’t want to indicate that we are not getting the whole story. I don’t think we’ve taken it seriously enough. We look at it as a problem and as an irritant to our work, but we can’t bring ourselves to even admit among ourselves that this is keeping stuff from us and from the public. I feel maybe one thing that is at work here is there’s a human bias that says, “what you see is all there is.” In other words as humans we think we see at all. I’m afraid that that is going on with journalists. We work hard. We sometimes get leaks. We do have insiders who will talk at times. We have skills like getting information through the Freedom of Information Act. We get impressive stories. We don’t like to think about the fact that maybe there’s so much out there that we don’t know, that the balance in completeness of our stories is at risk
KZ: And I imagine if reporters were to say in their article… a note at the end or something, that these interviews were conducted under the surveillance of a minder, that that would be the last time they get interviewed. And having access, even when it’s limited by the minder being there, is still better than having no access. I imagine that’s a big problem. What do you see as a way to fix this problem?
KF: Well at this point it’s huge. It is very deep in our society. For some reason that we need to research more, we don’t see it as a free speech problem. We don’t see it as a problem that keeps information from all of us. So I think the first step has to be journalists standing together across the board, all kinds of organizations saying yes, this is censorship. It has all the deadly, abusive qualities of censorship everywhere. And we are going to stand against it. We’re going to report it and continue to oppose it until we seriously get the attention of the policymakers.
MF: Now there has been some effort/ You wrote about a bill back in October of 2019 that was has some language that would allow federal scientists to speak more openly. Can you talk about that?
KF: Well as part of a bill that has to do with scientific integrity and the federal government, and the scientific Integrity policies that they hope that all agencies that deal with science will have…it was actually very disappointing. It had a tiny little hole in this wall of media relations censorship. And that whole was… federal scientists can talk about their own work—mind you nothing else—they can talk about their own work to a reporter who gets in touch with them, without telling the agency first. That’s a tiny, tiny hole. It’s only scientists. It’s only their own works. Nothing else. And also there’s no provision to say that the agency can’t force them to tell the agency about contact afterwards. To me that was so tiny it was it was reinforcing the larger rule, but they couldn’t even do that. The house finance committee that considered this changed the bill before they passed it and took out that provision. And you know, it was a bipartisan vote. They had agreed ahead of time, and they voted for the bill that took out that provision. I’m stunned that in the Congress of the United States. there is this feeling that we have free speech, except for media relations control.
KZ: It’s really amazing that the way this 21st century is redefining freedom of the press and freedom of speech with the whistleblower attacks, with the minders, using the Espionage Act, the algorithms that stop you reading stuff. So much censorship. It’s kind of frightening, but I appreciate that you say this is bipartisan. You point this back to 25 years with the Bill Clinton administration/ You talked about the Obama Administration, and the Trump Administration. These days some people want to say it’s all about Trump. But you’re really making this pretty clear consistently. This is a bipartisan problem. The Democrats are… it seems like maybe it even started with the Democrats during the Clinton era. So talk about… are there any people in Congress who get this, and who could become allies and the movement could build on?
KF: I have to say I just don’t know/ We tried once or twice. We sent letter to Congress. We did go to a particular Senator’s office. I don’t know this cultural norm that we have built up seems to be self-pervasive and so deep into our culture that honestly, I’ve had a number of people, even journalists, who I think honestly don’t get it at first. And some journalists say well, they have a right to their own story. So they don’t honestly seem to see the danger in having all these people, many of whom are very close to the information that we desperately need, silenced. Basically silenced, in terms of talking freely y to the Press.
KZ: It’s so interesting because it’s going on 25 years now, so you think of a reporter he’s 45. That’s all they’ve known. That’s the only way the world has existed.
MF: It’s like children today who are growing up in an environment where you’re used to not having privacy. And I tried to as I was raising my my kids help them to understand that when I grew up privacy was expected. You know, and in this situation access and transparency are expected and we are losing those.
KZ: So what happens if you were to go have an interview with an official and the minders there. They tell you their story with everything approved by the minder. What happens if you call that official afterwards and try to talk them individually. What’s the reaction you would get?
KF: In most instances the official, or any individual you called would be like, “Oh I have to I have to go through this public information office.” So you’re under heavy pressure.
MF: They have policies within their institutions that are controlling the individual employees. Is that right?
KF: Correct. It’s not it’s not just something the public information office tells a journalist. These policies are heavily emphasized.
KZ: Even if you tell the government official that it’ll be off the record? Are they afraid their phones are tapped, or how do they know it’s enforced?
KF: I know that they do not want to take the risk usually. And of course there are instances where public officials or people within the agencies do talk, either because they’re angry enough or they’re scared enough of what is going on. But most often they will not talk to a reporter if reporter calls them personally.
MF: Now, you’ve also written about a situation with the FDA where some nonprofit groups were trying to push for more access to the FDA\, and the FDA came back with a finding that in their belief, it was completely legal to restrain the press’ access. Can you talk about that?
KF: That’s correct. The petition was put in by a man who has a newsletter on the FDA for many many years. He owns the newsletter and he when this started happening he was appalled, and he some years in put in a petition to FDA to say, you know, you shouldn’t be doing this. Four years later the FDA came back with a very legalistic document that said that they could do this because of a 2006 Supreme Court decision. There’s several things there to talk about. One is, these control started well before 2006. But federal agencies and others seem to have just jumped on the Garcetti decision as justification for this. The Garcetti decision was about a public employee who basically put information out that was his opinion, that was different from the agency’s opinion. And the way I understand it is he did not make a differentiation between what he was saying and what the agency was saying. Well, I think most of us can understand that. I mean, you don’t imply that your employer is saying thus and so. When you write an official document for an agency, or you make another statement for the agency, you say what the agency isn’t saying, that you’re an employee’ and you say that.
Well personally, I thought the Supreme Court decision was the worst that I have ever read, and I used to read a lot of them. But agencies just jumped on that to say we have a right to say, “people can’t talk without oversight. We can do these controls.” And of course, I think that it would be perfectly reasonable for an agency to say you have a right to speak.You have a right to tell anybody your own opinion, but you should differentiate between what is your opinion and what is the agency’s opinion. The controls we have now go far far beyond that.
KZ: Yeah, they’re stretching that Garcetti decision. Is there some weaknesses in this, and I hope that in the future there are some legal challenges to it. I could see a number of different perspectives, especially take a really bad case like a Flint water case, where people knew and the government prevented reporters from finding out, I think you could create a case where the courts would be more open to it, but it’s a big fight.
MF: So for people who are listening to this show who want to learn more or get involved. where’s the best place for them to read about this?
KF: Well, the Society of Professional Journalists has a page that is particularly on the PIO issue. We call it the Public Information Officer issue, and there are a number of documents they are that explain the history, etc. You can also just get in touch with SBJ in general. You all indicated that you all would have a home page where some of these connections could be linked to, and I hope you’ll do that.
KZ: Yes. Well that will definitely do that. Yeah. It’s really important that you’re talking about this because people are worried about censorship for lots of different reasons, but I bet very few readers and listeners of this show are aware of this public information officer minder problem that prevents us from hearing the full story about critical issues. So I’m glad this is being Royal. Thank you for doing that;
MF: Yeah. Thank you for taking time to join us and thank you for your work.
KF: Certainly and you might not know it but there are many many other journalists working on this issue.