Press "Minders" Required at Scientists’ Interviews

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

A new development over the past five years is the use of “minders” by federal agency public affairs offices. The term is used by some scientists to describe public affairs officials who are assigned to listen in on scientists’ interviews with the media. With restrictive media policies selectively enforced, some climate change scientists have been more actively “minded” than others.1

Dr. Pieter Tans, chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Global Monitoring Division (previously the Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Laboratory), was one scientist who was monitored very actively by NOAA. The press officer assigned to be Tans’ “minder” was Kent Laborde.

Tans had been accustomed for many years to making his own appointments for press interviews under NOAA’s previous “notification and recap” policy. Under the previous policy, scientists were expected to keep the NOAA press office informed when they planned to give interviews, and brief the office about interviews after they took place.

But by 2004, media policies at NOAA had tightened. In October 2004, BBC science correspondent David Shukman contacted Tans to request a series of broadcast interviews. Tans complied with NOAA’s new regulations and asked his agency’s public affairs office to approve the interview request. According to Tans, it took four months, until February 2005, for NOAA’s public affairs office to grant permission for him to give the BBC interviews. Event then, approval was granted only on the condition that Kent Laborde be physically present at the interview.2 

Kent Laborde flew from NOAA’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to Boulder, Colorado and then to Mauna Loa, Hawaii, in order to be present for Shukman’s two BBC interviews with Dr. Tans on March 22 and 24, 2005. When Shukman again requested an interview with Tans a year later, on February 1, 2006, the interview was again approved only on the condition that Laborde be present.

Dr. Tans asked Laborde if he was required to report to anyone about the interviews. Laborde replied that he did not report the proceedings to anyone. Tans found it unusual that the NOAA public affairs office would allocate funds for such extensive travel, at taxpayer expense, for a press officer simply to sit in on a media interview and not report on the proceedings.

At least three other scientists at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory had media requests approved by NOAA only on the condition that press officer Laborde be present at or listen in on their interviews.3 

Monitoring requirements were not limited to NOAA. NASA climatologist Dr. Drew Shindell testified before Congress that in the fall of 2004 NASA began requiring press officers to monitor all interviews, either in person or on the phone.  Dr. Shindell called the policy “a measure unbefitting a democratic society.”4 

1. This page contains material excerpted from the 2007 report Atmosphere of Pressure by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project.
2. Tans, P.  2006.  Phone interview with Tarek Maassarani, March 9.  Pieter Tans is a research scientist at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory.
3. Stouffer, R., Knutson, T. and Anonymous NOAA scientist. 2006.  Interviews with Tarek Maassarani, April 13.  All are NOAA research scientists.
4. Shindell, D. 2007.
Testimony at House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Political Influence on Government Climate Change Scientists, January 30. Accessed March 9, 2007.

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