As Pandemic Wears On, FCC Press Access Limited
After the Feb. 17 monthly commissioners' meeting, acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel held her first news conference in over a year, the first by any FCC Democrat since February 2020. It was via conference call, unavailable to the public and cut off after half an hour, before multiple reporters were able to ask questions. That continues a trend, begun under former Chairman Ajit Pai, of sharply reduced and fewer public press briefings at the FCC during the pandemic and reflects a decadeslong and gradual reduction in availability of commission officials to reporters.
Experts who reviewed our data said this reflects a concerning trend. It was seen earlier in the pandemic as well, as shown in an earlier installment here of our ongoing series of articles on the COVID-19 crisis and telecom. At that time, more agencies at all levels of government were scrambling to adjust to virtual operations.
Ultimately, experts agree, reduced FCC communications between subject-matter experts and the media hurts the public by giving them less information about government actions. Federal agencies are "making decisions that affect all Americans,” said Leonard Downie, former Washington Post executive editor and a professor at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. “It is important for them to explain what they are doing.”
Rosenworcel’s last post-FCC meeting news briefing before the February 2021 meeting was in January 2020, two months before the pandemic led the agency to shift to working from home. Fellow Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks’ was in February 2020, after the last in-person commissioners' meeting. Starks hasn’t held a news conference in 2021. The February 2020 meeting was also the last time reporters had a news conference with bureau staff. Those conferences, traditionally held after every open meeting, were one of the only ways journalists were able to ask questions directly of those who do much of the actual work of the FCC. Reporter questions to bureau staff outside those meetings are nearly always required to go through media relations staff. When the FCC still met in person, all post-meeting briefings were viewable on the FCC’s livestream and recorded in the agency’s video archive on YouTube.
"The Acting Chairwoman is deeply committed to transparency at the FCC," emailed a spokesperson Tuesday. "She will continue to hold press conferences regularly. The agency will continue to look for effective and manageable tools to build on its already robust efforts to provide information through the website, press releases, briefings, press conferences, social media accounts, the Daily Digest, videos, interviews, and other communications channels.”
Communications Daily this month filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents and communications about the reduction in FCC briefings of journalists.
Not all FCC members have scaled back their extemporaneous interactions with the news media.
FCC officials in the past cited the difficulties of working from home and technical concerns as reasons media briefings were reduced in the past year. But the agency’s Republicans have continued to hold news conferences during the pandemic, though in reduced numbers and also not available to the public. Local officials have been holding news briefings throughout the pandemic, said Todd Felts, associate professor of public relations at the University of Nevada’s Reynolds School and former press secretary to then-North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt (D). “Zoom exists,” noted Downie.
Commissioner Brendan Carr has been the most consistent. He held a press call after every open meeting but one -- the first virtual-only meeting, in March 2020 -- since the pandemic shutdown began. While in office, former Commissioner Mike O’Rielly also held them consistently but stopped after President Donald Trump pulled his nomination in early August. O’Rielly didn’t hold another until his final meeting in December. Pai did news briefings in January and February 2020 and then intermittently until his final meeting in January 2021. Pai didn’t do briefings after meetings in March, May, August, November and December. The FCC’s newest commissioner, Nathan Simington (R), has had the job for two open meetings but hasn't held a post-meeting news conference. Simington and Starks declined to comment. Pai didn’t respond to our query.
“Ensuring that members of the press have regular and direct access” to government officials “so they can ask questions on the record and then press officials through follow-up questions is key to holding the government accountable,” said Carr in an email. “FCC officials in particular should strive to meet a high bar when it comes to ensuring that members of the press can do their jobs. Relying solely on background calls or off the record conversations to communicate with the press doesn't cut it.”
FCC news conferences done by whoever is chair often have limitations that aren't applied when commissioners speak with reporters. When the chair speaks with journalists as a group, reporters are barred from asking more than one question or asking a follow-up query.
When the FCC chair has held post-meeting news conferences during the pandemic, they typically weren't announced until that morning. Agency spokespeople wouldn't say beforehand whether one would occur, unlike with commissioners. As of Tuesday afternoon, the FCC still hadn’t said whether there will be a press briefing at Wednesday's meeting.
The FCC spokesperson said bureau and offices' news conferences stopped under the prior administration, and journalists can ask questions of such staff through the Office of Media Relations. Commissioners manage their own press operations, including news conferences, the spokesperson said. News conferences for minority commissioners are relatively new, dating from the 2015 net neutrality vote, the spokesperson said. During the pandemic as commissioner, Rosenworcel solicited reporter questions via email, rather than having a news conference, for logistical reasons, the spokesperson said.
Among agencies that Communications Daily periodically surveys, the FCC has been nearly alone in some restrictions placed on disclosure that predate the pandemic, that continue now and that began under previous administrations of both parties. The FCC under previous administrations held news conferences on the condition that reporters neither quote speakers nor identify them (see here). The FCC issues documents in the late afternoon and evening (see here and here).
FCC policies don’t appear conducive to engaging with the public via news stories, said experts including University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications professor Frank LoMonte.
Fully communicating isn’t a “canned press release from a professional P.R. spokesperson,” the lawyer said about the commission not allowing staff to explain policies at news conferences during the health crisis or not allowing on-the-record interviews. “If you're confident that your agency is making valid decisions that you can stand behind, then you should be willing to stand behind them publicly,” emailed LoMonte, who's also director of his university’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. “If you're not comfortable answering questions about the policies you make, or if you don't think the public is entitled to know why government decisions are made, then maybe you're in the wrong line of work.”
Other FCC communications standards that predate the pandemic might not stand up in a court, said the professor and former journalist. “A federal agency has no authority to tell a journalist ‘don't pick up the telephone and call one of our employees, or we'll punish you.’” While it’s permissible for government employees to decline to answer questions, it violates the First Amendment “to forbid employees from discussing work-related matters with the news media,” other than requiring that “sensitive information” be kept confidential, LoMonte said.
“It’s just incredibly frightening,” said Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee member Kathryn Foxhall about the FCC controls, which she said reflect measures SPJ has been working to reverse. “It’s parallel to a lot of things we have heard over a lot of years, and it apparently gets worse and worse over time.” Requiring journalists to go through FCC gatekeepers to get information creates an information bottleneck that gives those commission officials the ability to cut off that flow, she said: “It reminds me of stories from the Soviet Union that they had some kind of free speech,” albeit highly controlled. This is increasingly occurring at various agencies at all levels of government, said Foxhall, a retired journalist and board member of SPJ’s D.C. Professional Chapter. (An author of this story is that chapter’s immediate past president but no longer sits on its board; the national SPJ directed our interview request to Foxhall.)
Media should report on these limitations and also challenge them by lobbying policymakers and going to court, Foxhall said. “Much to our discredit, I don’t think the press has explained this to the public,” she said of government PR limitations. “That may be because we are trying to salvage our image of trying to ‘get the story.’” The “public is deprived of being able to understand the agency” and what’s happening behind the scenes due to FCC controls, she said. When commission staff can’t extemporaneously answer reporter questions because there are no news conferences during the pandemic, the “public doesn’t have the benefit of knowing the answers,” Foxhall said: “It’s very much like an authoritarian regime” where “there’s no opportunity to question anything.”
Such government PR controls have a bipartisan history, though stakeholders say increased partisanship may contribute to the overall trend. And industry lawyers say it affects their ability to understand FCC actions, too.
Downie wrote a report about tightening controls over press relations under the Barack Obama White House, and he said that trend continued across the federal government under Trump. There have been signs of increased openness under President Joe Biden, but Downie said the FCC’s lack of press briefings might not be in keeping with the Biden White House’s promises on that front. The White House didn’t comment.
National Association of Government Communicators’ code of ethics has key points emphasizing honesty, access and transparency, with varying ways to achieve those goals, said NAGC President Scott Thomsen. Widespread public distrust in government means PR experts must show the public how their employers reached key conclusions, he said. Agencies should monitor feedback about themselves across the media and other platforms and make necessary adjustments, counseled Thomsen, who’s Ventura County (California) Fire Department director-communications and public affairs and wasn’t speaking on its behalf. It’s a challenge nationwide to “support good, clear communications in a pandemic,” said Thomsen, a former journalist.
Government officials often don’t like news briefings because “anything can happen,” said Felts. They “can go south” and require preparation by the officials and their staff, he said. But they’re also an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, he said.
Former FCC officials and industry attorneys said the spontaneity of a press briefing is part of their value. Ex-Chairman Richard Wiley didn’t hold press briefings as chair but said he watched them -- pre-pandemic -- because spontaneous answers reveal information that might not otherwise come out. Questions by reporters can help reveal the nuances of FCC decisions and the thinking behind them, which may not be obvious in a written order or staff presentation, said former FCC Chairman Mark Fowler. News briefings “help everybody understand everything that everybody has to understand,” he said. “Sometimes the questions are hard, but they give everyone a better idea” of what the agency is doing, Fowler said.
Fewer press briefings leads to less reporting about FCC actions, said Foster Garvey broadcast attorney Melodie Virtue. Pillsbury Winthrop broadcast lawyer Scott Flick said briefings lead to a better understanding of FCC items.
Felts said increasing efforts by agencies to control press interactions reflect a shift in philosophy, wherein such officeholders are no longer taught to develop relationships with the media. “In the long term, transparency wins,” Felts said. “When you bury the bodies is when you get in trouble.”