FDA back to its old tricks, trying to turn reporters into stenographers
This weekend, in a column titled “When Sources Set The Ground Rules,” New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan highlighted an unusual sentence in a story that had appeared in the paper:
SOMETIMES a single sentence can be a window into a world.
Such a sentence appeared in Sabrina Tavernise’s front-page article late last month about the federal Food and Drug Administration’s new guidelines for e-cigarettes. It read: “F.D.A. officials gave journalists an outline of the new rules on Wednesday, but required that they not talk to industry or public health groups until after Thursday’s formal release of the documents.”
That’s a concept that gives many journalists the creeps: the government telling journalists to whom they can and can’t talk.
Sullivan quoted my friend Ira Stoll, writing on his Smarter Times website:
Who gave the F.D.A. the authority to stop journalists from asking questions? Why would any journalist agree to abide by such a requirement? Did The Times agree to it, and if it did agree to it, did it abide by the agreement? What is the F.D.A.’s rationale for such restrictions?
Another Times reporter, Stephanie Strom, told Sullivan:
This is something that never existed before, but now we’re seeing it more and more.
Indeed. The FDA did the same thing in 2011, raising the ire of Embargo Watch and a number of others. One of the groups that raised concerns was the Association of Health Care Journalists, where I am now vice president (and was treasurer in 2011). The AHCJ wrote a letter to the FDA, which responded by saying
A journalist may share embargoed material provided by the FDA with non-journalists or third parties to obtain quotes or opinions prior to an embargo lift provided that the reporter secures agreement from the third-party to uphold the embargo.
Apparently, they’ve reneged on that policy. From Sullivan’s column:
Erica Jefferson, the F.D.A.’s spokeswoman, told me that the motivation was not to be manipulative but to give reporters early access to a complicated news development. Because they were only being briefed, not given the document itself, she said, it wouldn’t have been wise to ask outside experts to comment on something they hadn’t seen. And, she noted, the F.D.A.’s activities are bound by many legal restrictions, and have the ability to move markets; the information has to be handled with care.
“We told reporters that once the document is out, you can update your story” with outside comment, Ms. Jefferson said.
Like quote approval, this practice ought to be stomped out. I’d like to see The Times push back — hard — against such restrictions in every instance, and be prepared to walk away from the story if need be.
Amen, for all news organizations.