Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Donnelly National Press Club Presentation

Opening remarks by John M. Donnelly
CQ Roll Call senior writer and chairman of the National Press Club's Press Freedom Committee

As a reporter, I am not partial, but I admit I'm biased on this issue in favor of as much openness and disclosure as possible and as few rules about who can talk to reporters--and how--as possible. I also recognize that public affairs has an indispensable job to do.
Having said that, I'd like to set the stage for tonight's discussion with a few words.
First, tonight's conversation is about the growing--and some say, harmful--role played by public affairs offices in the federal government. The complaints we hear from reporters are about widespread requirements that PAOs must be present during interviews, that questions be written in advance, and that only certain people can be made available to say certain things. What is arguably most chilling to the flow of information to the public are federal rules--as at the Pentagon--that REQUIRE employees to ONLY speak to reporters through official public affairs channels. The courts have backed up these rules. In a case called Garcetti v.Ceballos, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in 2006 that government employees do not have an unbridled First Amendment right to free speech when it comes to what they say about information pertaining to their public position.
In many agencies, federal rules merely encourage, but don't require, that employees speak in the framework of public affairs. But either way, the message seems to be that it's not good for your career to talk to a reporter "off line," even if the subject isn't classified or proprietary.
For example, the former NSA official turned whistleblower, Thomas Drake, said at a recent press club luncheon that when federal employees seeking to obtain or renew security clearances are interviewed by investigators, one of the questions asked--at least some of the time--is whether the employee has ever had unauthorized contact with a reporter. NOT unauthorized contact involving classified information, but ANY unauthorized contact. By merely asking that question in that context, they are sending the message--intentionally or not--that speaking to the press off line is forbidden and could even make you a security risk. The Manning and Snowden leaks have raised the temperature on this issue, particularly in security agencies. The no-leaks message was made in a hard core way in a June 2012 DoD document about the "insider threat" program obtained by McClatchy News:  “Hammer this fact home...leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States." If that rule was enforced equally, there would be a lot of senior officials--in this administration and previous ones--who would be in a lot of trouble. But, of course, it's not enforced equally.
The net effect of all this is a real deterrent to people speaking with the press outside of official channels--which often HAS to happen for the truth to come out, truth that Americans need to know about.
However, let me be clear: We reporters appreciate public affairs offices--when they help, and they very, very often do. I don't know anyone who wants to do away with these offices. Even if they did want that, it ain't gonna happen.  Most reporters understand it's the job of public affairs to make sure that an agency's point of view is expressed coherently, that everyone is on the same page, that rogue voices are not confused with official policy.
I like what the Pentagon's "statement of principles" about relations with the media says:
Public affairs officers, should "act as liaisons, but should not interfere with the reporting process."
We'd probably all agree with that. The rub is about what constitutes interference. I hope we find some common ground here tonight.

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