The conversation should have been easy: An interview about renewable energy on public lands with a federal official I know and trust, the rare bureaucrat who can spin administrative drudgery into a good yarn. But I soon sensed I was wasting my time. For there was another person on the line, too, one whose job it was to collar and interrupt my valuable source whenever he strayed from the official narrative -- a person known to many as the "minder."
I'm not the only victim of federal agency message control. President Obama pledged to preside over a government of unprecedented openness, yet a recent survey of science journalists, conducted by the nonprofit news outfit ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), found the administration's efforts sadly deficient. Fully a third of respondents ranked the White House as "poor" or "very poor" on right-to-know issues -- a statistic that "does not bode well," writes Curtis Brainard in CJR, "for the free flow of information." Brainard and other journalists discussed this on a National Press Club panel Oct. 3; ironically, despite repeated invitations and a convenient location -- the press club's Washington, D.C., headquarters -- no federal government representative managed to show up.
Some reporters have waited months for information that according to federal freedom-of-information laws should have been delivered in 20 days; others have found access to important sources inside agencies restricted, monitored or flat-out denied. Forest Service memos have instructed employees to coordinate many media encounters with its national press office, sometimes delaying interviews for weeks; the Environmental Protection Agency's own "scientific integrity" policy explicitly requires that media liaisons -- those conversation-chilling minders -- be present during interviews with reporters.
It makes sense that the feds would want to carefully frame discussions of politicized and controversial topics. But inhibited access to front-line scientists, decision-makers and public officials means that too often environment and science news reaches reporters at best in telephone press conferences, and at worst in prepared statements and press releases, some so cryptic they could qualify as verbal Rorshachs. It's almost as if the administration is trying to hide its accomplishments.
This information fog has consequences. Right now, two stories about Obama's environmental policy dominate the news cycle: One paints the president as a job-killing enviro-warrior, the other, as a rank corporatist beholden to industry. Neither considers how Ken Salazar's Interior Department has introduced order and diligence into the process of leasing land for energy development, both fossil-fuel and renewable, or how earnestly the Environmental Protection Agency under Lisa Jackson has fought to enforce the long-established Clean Air Act.
"The EPA wanted to start enforcing the law, they wanted to improve standards," says Carolyn Whetzel, a staff correspondent at the industry news magazine BNA and president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. "And much of that has been lost on the public because of the media blockade."
Valerie Brown, a freelance journalist and occasional High Country News contributor who frequently covers the EPA, says she's sometimes spent two weeks asking for an interview with someone inside the agency, only to be tossed a canned statement when time runs out -- "a dried-out crust of sentence," as Brown puts it, "with no nutritive value."
Obama's press liaisons argue that the White House has made available more numbers and figures and memos and email threads than any citizen could want. It's made some government websites friendlier, too, giving the public direct access to an unprecedented wealth of data about, for instance, pollution in their communities. No database in the world, however, can compete with an experienced federal biologist's first-hand account of rescuing a threatened species in the path of development, or the description of an EPA scientist's visit with a community sickened by local pollution. Humans communicate with stories, not spreadsheets and statements. Candid interviews are the lifeblood of those stories.
As this article goes to press, opponents of environmental regulation are crafting their own imagination-grabbing narratives to combat laws that might help stabilize climate change or protect people's lungs. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., chairman of a House subcommittee on energy and mineral resources, insists that the EPA's new sulfur and nitrogen emission limits -- the "Cross State Air Pollution Rule" that goes into effect in 27 coal-burning states as of Jan. 1, 2012 -- will sink 29,000 people below the poverty line. Texas Gov. Rick Perry says the rules will shut down the state's electrical grid. Conservative think-tank scholars and experts argue that somehow making decades-old coal-fired power plants conform to federal environmental law puts the country at risk of devastating blackouts.
The EPA has now announced some minor "technical adjustments" to make that rulemaking less onerous to certain states, amounting to a 1 percent increase in the allowable emissions. If that sounds like a capitulation to industry, it might be because the voices in opposition have squalled so long and loud. Meanwhile, the voices of our own taxpayer-funded experts, the ones who've examined the science -- who talk to asthmatic downwinders and count early deaths from respiratory illness -- have been largely missing from the debate, as they have from many others. "The Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Energy -- all of those federal agencies have a wealth of excellent scientists and analysts," Whetzel says. "But if reporters can't have (good) access to them, the information they have doesn't get out. It means there's a missing link in the news."