FDA, research institutions criticized for trying to control public information

Food_and_Drug_Administration_logo.svgIt may sound like inside baseball but it’s not. It’s a critical aspect of how federal bureaucrats who work for us, the taxpayers, need to stop advancing their own agendas, and how they should stop trying to control not only important medical, scientific, and regulatory information but also the public conversations that are supposed to ensue from it. The lessons to be learned here also could apply to prestigious research institutions.

Scientific American deserves credit for poking in the nose some potentially important sources in the federal Food and Drug Administration, other U.S. agencies, and those renowned research institutions for using “close-hold” news embargoes, and exclusive releases of big materials to select journalists. To be sure, embargoes are common, and for agencies and institutions they can be necessary to ensure they get their information out, at once, in a timely fashion, with appropriate resources and staffing, and, actually, in the fairest possible way.

But as the respected journal points out, these practices have gone beyond separating the working press into cool kids and not. Instead, these have become tactics to bully and arm-twist journalists to ensure one point of view, that of the agency or institution, is favored─at least in the crush of a particular news cycle. Unlike other news embargoes, in which journalists voluntarily agree to not publish information until a given time, close-holds also restrict them from seeking advance comments or other points of view. With tight deadlines and a 24/7 news cycle, unless reporters can gather some information in advance, they can’t get it in time to include in stories about an agency or institution information release under “close hold.”

The FDA, for example, also opens itself to accusations of partisanship by failing to invite outfits like Fox News to participate in embargoes and its releases of materials to select journalists. (I’m no fan, by the way, of the too often faux news on Fox). As Scientific American points out, the journalists chosen to get materials in advance often work for elite, East Coast, mainstream news outlets. They, too, object to their own inclusion because it can mean they must hew to agency or institutional diktates, forcing them to play ball and turning them more into willing stenographers than skeptical newsgatherers.

Further, the FDA, other government agencies, and other research institutions risk politicizing themselves and their work with the “close holds,” because these mean that reporters typically cannot include others’ points of view on important and often controversial issues─it often means there’s no counterpoint of potentially constructive criticism.

I’m taking note elsewhere on the blog of an excellent Associated Press investigation that details how Big Pharma has manipulated the Washington, D.C., establishment with a wide, money-soaked campaign to keep key leaders from seeing the calamity of the nation’s prescription drug abuse epidemic. That story warns us all that it’s too easy for special interests to sway public discourse in harmful ways. The free flow of information, and robust conversations about it, are critical to our democracy.

Ivan Oransky, a seasoned health journalist who blogs about government news embargoes, says journalists must step up, stop cooperating, and do what they can to stop these bad bureaucratic tactics.If there are just agency or institutional flaks who are pushing too-clever-by-half measures like close-hold embargoes and selective information releases, the leaders of federal agencies and research institutions should order them to stop; if these practices are flowing down from on high, perhaps it’s time for institutional donors and savvy Senators and U.S. representatives to read the riot act to some folks to halt these petty practices.

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