Commentary Magazine


HHS Bans Staff from Speaking Freely with Media

Health and Human Services has just released a revised media policy, which forbids staffers from talking to journalists without first getting authorization from the HHS press office. The policy also bans employees from speaking off-the-record with reporters, rules that could significantly hinder investigative journalism.

Health-focused trade publications, which are dependent on confidential sources in agencies like the HHS, are already blasting the policy. Jim Dickinson, editor of FDA Webview and FDA Review called them a “Soviet-style power grab” and warned that the “existing [trade] media will likely die out” because of them:

The new formal HHS Guidelines on the Provision of Information to the News Media represent, to this 36-year veteran of reporting FDA news, a Soviet-style power-grab. By requiring all HHS employees to arrange their information-sharing with news media through their agency press office, HHS has formalized a creeping information-control mechanism that informally began during the Clinton Administration and was accelerated by the Bush and Obama administrations.

Consider how impossible these guidelines make the acquisition by a journalist of confidential internal sources in an agency like FDA. The existence of such confidential sources gave an economic foundation to and made possible the foundation of my own media, and the founding of earlier trade media such as The Pink Sheet and Food Chemical News, among many others.

The rules will make accurate coverage of the HHS much more difficult. Banning HHS staffers from talking off-the-record could have a chilling effect, and requiring them to get their conversations with journalists authorized by the media relations office means that the public will get less truth and more spin.

And as Cato’s Michael Cannon points out, the policy changes come at a noteworthy time:

Since this came on the heels of an HHS official announcing that the agency is scuttling ObamaCare‘s long-term care entitlement, a.k.a. the “CLASS Act,” one wonders if there is a connection.  Or maybe HHS is just motivated by a general fear that the more the public learns about ObamaCare, the less we will like it.

It sounds like the changes have been happening slowly for some time, but the agency’s decision might have been prompted by an embarrassing email leak from the CLASS Act office last week. The major concern now is that if HHS gets away with this new policy, other government agencies could end up following suit.