May 01, 2008
As I see it
The lower the FDA sinks in public esteem, the more it shows a bunker mentality, withdrawing into its shell and stalling on media inquiries. You know it's getting bad when the media complain in public (no reporter likes to tell readers he's been blocked). That happened in March when Cybercast News Service told its readers it had been thwarted by the FDA for two weeks in its efforts to get an interview about a contaminated blood product, including a promise to respond that was broken by an associate commissioner.
A few weeks earlier, a former editor with the American Public Health Association, Kathryn Foxhall, spoke for many journalists when she told the FDA's new Risk Communication Advisory Committee about effective “censorship” the agency practices by limiting access to, then monitoring interviews with, its officials—which has “a chilling effect.”
In its media management policies, the FDA prefers to deal with reporters who are unlikely to ask tough questions, mainly because they don't know enough to do so. This “dumbs down” the agency's public discourse, which, ultimately, can lead to accountability problems.
Then I received anonymously in the mail, apparently from a fearful FDA employee, an internal document, FDA Employee Guidelines for Safeguarding Non-Public Information. Its 10 pages of menacing text sweepingly defines “non-public information” as any info gained by reason of federal employment that has not already been made available to the public, and it threatens criminal penalties for disclosure. How, I wonder, is any employee expected to know what is already available to the public?
So much for all those high-level promises to make this agency more “transparent” and accountable to the general public!
Dickinson is editor of Dickinson's FDA Webview (fdaweb.com)