FCC Public Safety Documents Routinely Issued in Evening
The FCC routinely released public safety and emergency communications documents in the evening, outside the time frame that experts recommend. This trend, seen on many other issues at the commission over more than a decade, possibly deprived stakeholders from being fully and timely informed on important issues. From Jan. 1, 2018, until Oct. 25, when Communications Daily filed a Freedom of Information Act request and the practice ceased, four such items were made public later than 5:30 p.m. Eastern when the commission's business hours end. That's according to results from the FOIA request and our database.
The agency released another seven items online after 5 p.m., according to that data. Experts we interviewed recommend information be released by early afternoon. Nine additional documents appeared to have been posted in the late afternoon; the FCC didn't confirm those times. The agency defended the timeliness and importance of its public safety work.
In total, 20 items over 10 months related to public safety were issued later than experts recommend. While that practice has since ceased, it continues on many other issues at the commission. The Public Safety Bureau, involved in some of the late documents detailed in this Special Report, handles emergency communications issues. The bureau is the agency's newest, started in 2006, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and deadly hurricanes like Katrina (see 1904240039).
FCC public safety experts also twice last year were scheduled to have addressed news conferences given on condition that reporters may not identify the individuals speaking. The commission has long organized such "on background" news conferences and continues to issue documents outside its own business hours. Such practices have occurred under Democratic and Republican administrations.
"Over the years, there has been a definite pattern of delays in its conveyance of information to the public," said Clint Wilson, a Howard University professor emeritus who has worked on FCC-related issues: "Maybe it’s about that they know a lot of their decisions are unpopular with one side or the other, and they don’t want to face any more discussion or comment about it."
"We are proud of the work the FCC has done to advance public safety, from improving 911 communications and emergency alerting to supporting communications restoration after disasters," a spokesperson emailed Tuesday. "Many of the documents we posted later in the day were related to hurricanes. In fact, we also publish post-hurricane communications status reports on the weekends. This approach is preferable to waiting until the next business day to share information that is of interest to stakeholders.”
Three of four FCC documents on emergency communications issued after the commission closed for the day were on weekdays and on hurricanes Lane and Maria, we found. Our database excluded such reports issued on weekends. Six of seven weekday public safety postings between 5 and 5:29 p.m. Eastern also were on hurricanes. At 5:21 p.m. on Feb. 20, 2018, Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said he wrote governors whose states didn't provide information for the FCC's annual report on states diverting fees meant for 911. (For a Special Report article on 911 fee diversion, see 1904230021). On May 1, 2018, at 6:25 p.m., Public Safety Bureau Chief Lisa Fowlkes granted Vail, Colorado's request made earlier that day to test its wireless emergency system the next day.
Since October's FOIA request, late releases and news conferences on background have ceased on emergency communications issues including those involving the Public Safety Bureau even as they continued elsewhere at the FCC. "Sometimes, it takes a shot across the bow" to stop such practices, said National Association of Government Communicators President Chris O’Neil. "Maybe you’re seeing the results of that reflection, so that would be really encouraging. Folks get comfortable with ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’"
An upshot of evening releases and news conferences where staff couldn't be identified by name is that the public may not be fully informed, said those who reviewed our database.
Journalists covering late releases often can't get questions answered because staffers have left for the day, and information not attributed to a specific government official or public document may be less reliable. It's "a disservice to the public, because if there are problems, journalists have to work around the problems if they want to publish the information," said researcher, consultant and professor emeritus Carolyn Carlson. "Journalists are not able to contact anyone else to discuss what is being released, because it is after hours. All they can do is report what exactly is being released, which means that they are controlling the message," she said of spokespeople. "It's just not right. It's just not fair."
Both instances of FCC public safety experts speaking at government media events where they can't be identified were with the Federal Emergency Management Administration and about the first wireless emergency alert nationwide test. FEMA and FCC officials discussed expectations for the test, which occurred on Oct. 3 (see 1810030051). The FCC didn't release all the information we sought on these events, such as which officials spoke and what specific topics were covered.
National Association of Government Communicators spokesperson O'Neil knows of no other regulatory agencies holding such news events, calling them "such an anomaly" and "odd." He said the briefings seem "counterintuitive," don’t serve the interests of the media, public or government and shouldn't be labeled as media briefings. Carlson said there's a general trend of federal government spokespeople using many methods to try to control what independent news media are reporting. Carlson has done research on this for the Society of Professional Journalists; the author of this article is president of the Washington, D.C., chapter.
FEMA's general procedures for reporter briefings that aren't on the record allow more identification and verbatim quoting of subject-matter experts than the FCC usually permits. FEMA lets reporters identify such officials speaking on background as representing the agency, such as by describing them as spokespeople or as experts, and they can be quoted in full, spokesperson Daniel Llargues said in an interview Wednesday. When journalists request more specific attribution on key details, that's allowed, too, he added: "This is a very common practice of ours, for us to conduct calls like this on background" on a variety of subjects. The two events with the FCC weren't a "press conference," Llargues said. "On background calls are for us to provide information to the reporters on a very generic topic, and that’s the reason that it’s on background. But if you want to get more into specific questions, we’d be happy to provide attribution."
Instead of posting documents in the late afternoon or early evening, transparency professionals recommend issuing them the following morning or in the early afternoon. That's when "people can call you while you’re in the office, ask questions, to provide context to what you’ve released," said O’Neil. "Hold onto it, release it first thing in the morning. That gives everybody a chance to deal with it during the day," said Carlson. That ensures "the story is presented in an evenhanded manner."
FCC releases issued in late afternoon include on Feb. 7, 2018, a public notice seeking feedback on the agency’s ninth annual report to Congress on state 911 fees. The report itself was given to Congress Dec. 29, 2017, and covered 2016. On April 5, 2018, after a Senate Commerce Committee hearing was to have begun on a Hawaii false-missile alert (see 1804040057), the FCC released written testimony of Public Safety Bureau Deputy Chief Nicole McGinnis. On May 9, 2018, in the afternoon, the bureau released an agenda for a May 15 event to discuss lessons learned from that accidental alert. The agency didn't provide us with specific times in these instances despite our FOIA request including them. The commission contends those documents were issued sometime before 5 p.m.
Many documents were released within FCC business hours, yet still later than is recommended. On Feb. 6, 2018, at around 5 p.m. according to our data, the FCC posted bureau Chief’s Fowlkes written testimony on emergency alerting to a House Homeland Emergency Preparedness Subcommittee. The hearing was scheduled for 10 a.m. that day and a committee spokesperson recalled now that he thought that it began on time.
In general, issuing documents after 4:30 p.m. can look "like you’re trying to avoid folks," said O'Neil, the chief of media relations at the National Transportation Safety Board, though not speaking on NTSB's behalf. His takeaway from our database is that at the FCC, "someone is very uncomfortable with this information." He said it appears the motive is, '"We’re going to dole it out in as quiet a way as possible.’"