What happened: Several federal agencies were put under a media blackout in the first week of the Trump administration. Several of the targeted agencies have scientific research arms that work on environmental and climate change issues. All the blackouts had been lifted by the end of February.
Why it matters: While some observers noted that temporary halts to agency communications during a transition aren't unusual, the focus on agencies doing climate-related scientific work is disturbing—especially in the context of other signs that the administration intends to pursue an anti-science agenda with regard to climate change and other issues.
In the first week of the Trump administration, media blackouts were issued across many federal agencies including the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of the Interior (DOI), Department of Transportation (DOT), Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Some of these media blackout directives were reportedly touted only as a “recommendation” and developed within the agency, such as the directive issued at DOT. However, some directives, such as the one at EPA, were enforced, much more restrictive, and reported to have generated within the Trump administration. “Incoming media requests will be carefully screened,” one directive at EPA said. “Only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press.” A memo to USDA staff by department leadership read, “In order for the Department to deliver unified, consistent messages, it’s important for the Office of Secretary to be consulted on media inquiries and proposed responses to questions related to legislation, budgets, policy issues, and regulations. Policy-related statements should not be made to the press without notifying and consulting the Office of the Secretary. This includes press releases and on and off the record conversations.” And staff within the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) were issued a separate email from ARS chief, Sharon Drumm, ordering staff to not publish any “outward facing” documents and news releases. “Starting immediately and until further notice, [the Agricultural Research Service] will not release any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” read the ARS email.
The media blackouts were not issued government wide—indeed, many other agencies with a strong scientific research arm, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and United States Geological Survey (USGS), continued to provide information to the public through their normal processes.
Federal agencies and staffers reported that a pause on communications was not uncommon during a presidential transition. In response to many inquiries about the gag order, EPA released the following statement on Tuesday, January 24, “The EPA fully intends to provide information to the public. A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new Administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment.” Similarly, ARS issued the following statement, “As the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America.” Other longtime federal employees echoed this sentiment, “I’ve lived through many transitions, and I don’t think this is a story. I don’t think that it’s fair to call it a gag order. This is standard practice. And the move with regard to grants, when a new administration comes in, you run things by them before you update the website,” a senior EPA career employee stated.
However, despite these claims, other organizations reported that these media blackouts were more concerning and likely not normal with this administration given a background of: 1) appointees to Trump’s transition teams and cabinet with ties to organizations that have historically had anti-science agendas, 2) orders from the administration to take down climate change information from EPA’s website, and 3) the fact that the media blackout orders came only days after the National Parks Service posted a side-by-side comparison of Trump’s inaugural gathering versus President Obama’s that reportedly infuriated him.
Many raised concern that federal science would be blocked from public view and that federal scientists would be silenced with these media blackout directives, violating agencies’ own scientific integrity policies. “We are concerned about reports that federal agencies—including the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency—have issued directives to staff that may silence the voices of scientific researchers and others working for the federal government,” said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
One possible reason specific agencies were handed media blackout orders was that agencies working on climate change were targeted. Andrew Light, a senior fellow in the Global Climate Change Program at the World Resources Institute, noted, “in particular it’s noteworthy that it seems to be aimed at a cluster of science-driven agencies that primarily work on the environment or climate change, and that seems unique and targeted in this case and unprecedented.”
Some of the media blackouts were rescinded quickly, while others seemed to have been in place for a longer amount of time. On the same day the email instructing USDA employees not to release any public-facing information was sent, another email followed to rescind the original directive. “This internal email was released without Departmental direction, and prior to Departmental guidance being issued,” USDA stated. “ARS will be providing updated direction to its staff.” After its media blackout on January 20, the National Parks Service began re-tweeting on January 21. “Now that social media guidance has been clarified, the Department and its bureaus should resume Twitter engagement as normal this weekend,” said National Parks Service spokesman, Thomas Crosson. The EPA’s twitter account was silent until Scott Pruitt was confirmed as administrator on February 17. An EPA spokesman had stated previously that social media activity would resume when an administrator was confirmed. EPA released its first official tweet on February 17, “We’d like to congratulate Mr. Pruitt on his confirmation! We look forward to welcoming him at EPA.”
Additionally, a February 13 memo was sent to EPA to “urge” employees not to refer to their title or position when speaking in their personal capacity. This new language was more restrictive than the guidance on communicating personal views in the EPA Scientific Integrity Policy, and the tone suggests that scientists are better served by not speaking at all. As of February 28, 2017 all agencies are communicating in some capacity on social media, but it is unclear if agency staff are now allowed to speak via the media or social media publicly without preapproval and without fearing retaliation for doing so.