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Capitol Perspectives: Government Gag Orders

Phill Brooks
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A statehouse colleague of mine recently wrote about being blocked from access to a tax expert in the state Revenue Department for a story she was pursuing.

Virginia Young, the statehouse bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote about how she could not get access to a department expert to explain a tax issue directly affecting St. Louis County. Instead, she was restricted to a department spokesperson who ferried information and questions back and forth to others in the department.

I share her frustrations, as do many of us in the press corps who have found our efforts to contact agency experts diverted to “public information officers” who have limited or no knowledge about the issues for which we are seeking information.

Virginia wrote nostalgically about a prior administration when she could directly contact Revenue Department Director Duane Benton who would put her into contact with a tax expert in his department.

Like Virginia, I fondly remember how Benton helped us better understand tax laws and policies. It was an open-door approach to reporters taken by many in state government in past administrations.

Mental Health Department Director Harold Robb, a physician in mental health care, spent hours helping me better understand the complexities of mental health and public policy.

State Epidomoligist Denny Donnell, another physician, was a near teacher to many of us in explaining the details of communicable diseases. The attorney general’s consumer protection director, Harvey Tettlebaum, expanded my understanding of the legal aspects of consumer law. Corrections Director George Camp and Penitentiary Warden Don Wyrick never turned down a phone call.

You didn’t need a “public information officer” to get access to these officials.

These are just a few of the experts and agency officials in state government who spent considerable personal time helping reporters understand the complexities of their fields.

Back then, I had a clear sense these sources felt that the more informed we reporters could be, the more enlightened the Missouri public would be from the stories we produced.

Now, however, we increasingly are finding ourselves blocked from access to these technical experts and administrators. And the public pays a real price in understanding what is happening in their state government.

A good example arose a year ago with an E. coli outbreak in the St. Louis region. My reporters tried to talk with a medical expert in the state Health Department to give us the scientific and medical background about what was happening.

But we were denied access to Health Department experts. Instead, all communication with Missouri’s Health Department was restricted to a non-medical spokesperson. It got worse. That spokesperson told us the bacteria strain was one of the most resistant to antibiotics.

Wow — the superbug hits St. Louis. That’s the logical conclusion from the spokesperson’s statement. But it was completely wrong.

Fortunately, we did not run with that story. Instead, we persisted in seeking a medical expert. We abandoned trying to talk with experts in the Missouri Health Department and went to the St. Louis County Health Department.

From St. Louis County’s health department a physician told us it was just the opposite of what the state’s public information officer had described. Instead, this was a bacteria strain in which the best course of treatment was to not give antibiotics.

I’ve labeled this column “government gag orders” because what I am describing has become a persistent pattern in state government. And, as Virigina wrote, it’s coming from “Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration of tightly controlled and centralized information.”

There is absolutely no reason to believe that government experts and mid-level administrators seek to avoid reporters. Just the opposite. I’ve had middle-level government workers express fear about their jobs if the administration learned they had talked to me without approval from their supervisors.

My experience over the decades has been that the technical experts within state government have a tremendous desire to help reporters understand the complexities of their fields. I’ve found they have a real hunger to help educate us so that we are more able to inform the general public.

As Virginia concluded, “there’s no substitute for being able to interview the bureaucrat who actually knows the information.”

I could not have expressed it better.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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