Government Agency Told To Hush

Christopher Jensen, of the New York Times, reported Wednesday that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will no longer provide information to reporters, except on a background basis, without special permission.

This means the nation's top automotive safety agency officials cannot provide any information on the record or be quoted freely.

The administrator of the agency is Nicole R. Nason who was appointed by President Bush and began her position in May of 2006. Nason developed a policy that prevents nearly all of her staff from providing any information which could then be attributed to a spokesperson.

Nason's policy contradicts The Open Government Act of 2007 which was passed by the Senate earlier this month but has not yet been signed into law. The bill calls for more open, accountable and responsive government, but Nason's action slams the door on any communication between auto safety experts at N.H.T.S.A and reporters.

From the article:

The agency’s new policy effectively means that some of the world’s top safety researchers are no longer allowed to talk to reporters or to be freely quoted about automotive safety issues that affect pretty much everybody.

This is outrageous considering the fact that auto recalls peaked 30.8 million in 2004. Safety experts must take into account what is at stake if they are unable to discuss with reporters their research that may save lives.

Winding Road states:

"This policy is evidently an about-face from at least two decades marked by openness between NHTSA and the media."

In response, one reader said:

"This is typical of this regime in which fear and dogma are used to control the public by keeping them in the dark and only letting them know about issues of public concern when it benefits the regimes secret plans. Denying access to critical information, especially when it comes to public safety, further strips us of our rights as citizens of what used to be a democracy. The Bush White House has damaged every aspect of this nation from our standing in the world to a credit based federal budget. This is just them allowing us to damage each other and then find out about why we’re dead three months later in when a safety recall is announced."

And another:

I can’t believe I just read this… The NHTSA is a Safety administration. As one who endeavored to become an automotive engineer, having an open door policy to discuss any and all matters was and is paramount. We are, after all, talking about people’s lives.

Nason's previous position was assistant secretary for governmental affairs in the Department of Transportation, and her N.H.T.S.A. biography states she was responsible for oversight of congressional affairs and coordinating relationships between the D.O.T. and Congress.

Adds Jensen, "If she has any experience in keeping a Congressman from skidding out of control, that could come in handy now that she is speaking for an entire agency of seasoned safety experts."

----------

Contributing Editor Dana J. Tuszke also blogs at The Dana Files.

Posted by Dana J. Tuszke at August 24, 2007 3:24 PM
Comments
Comment #230569

Um, does this mean we are now officially serfs of corporate interests?

Posted by: mental wimp at August 24, 2007 3:35 PM
Comment #230572

Dana, first you have my respect for advocating for traditional central core conservative values which call for maximum transparency in government without compromising security of the nation and her people. Traditional conservativism doesn’t trust, on general principles set out by our founding fathers, officials in positions of power, and requires oversight and transparency to prevent abuses of power by those officials.

There are Republicans I respect, and I am rapidly learning to include you in that group. I will obviously not agree with you on particular policy details or directions, but, whenever your writings reflect traditional conservative values which aspire to the prescriptions of the Declaration of Independence and intents of the U.S. Constitution, your writings will command my respect and earnest reading.

Transparency should never be a partisan issue. It should be an issue voters defend with the greatest fervor at the polls of every election, because defending and demanding government transparency is the best insurance policy citizens have against having their rights and liberties compromised or, their taxes and laws abused and used against their interests.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 24, 2007 4:35 PM
Comment #230575


To allow people to discuss automobile safety is just inviting another terrorist attack.

Posted by: jlw at August 24, 2007 4:40 PM
Comment #230588

I support openness in government, but I would point out one imporant fact.

People who work for the government are usually not interesting to journalists because of who they are. They are interesting only because of who the represent - i.e. the USG. It is tempting for the bureaucrat to believe that he personally is the object of affection.

An official can talk to journalists on background. This provides the journalists with all the FACTS that he needs. It only deprives them of attribution that would lead to a politicalization and/or personalization.

The difference between explaining something on the record and on background is only one of attribution. Attribution might serve to elevate the bureaucrat to a spokesman for the USG when he is actually speaking only from his own point of view or personal experience. It is unneccesary for the facts and probably creates an innaccurate impression.

Put yourself in the situation. YOu have thousands of employees. Each have some expertise and opinions. Which of them speaks for the organization? Which on speaks for you? Background is just fine for information. On the record is not necessary except as a gotcha.

Posted by: Jack at August 24, 2007 6:14 PM
Comment #230594

Jack said: “The difference between explaining something on the record and on background is only one of attribution.”

Absolutely NOT TRUE, Jack. The HUGE difference is credibility. Anonymous sources are nowhere near as credible as sources willing to back their information with their name and job backing it up.

This is a really gross oversight in your comment. And without question, the motive behind Bush’s appointee’s policy. It is the best of the legal and media world. On one hand, anonymous sources can reveal true information avoiding legal consequences if called before an oversight committtee of Congress, while maximizing lack of credibility in such information and fomenting and focusing divisiveness and debate on the issue of the veracity of the anonymous source, rather than the impact and consequence of the true information released.

This is pure defensive politics, having NOTHING to do with responsible, transparent, and good governance.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 24, 2007 6:29 PM
Comment #230595

Dana

I would echo DR sentiments. Good job.


Jack
Is there ANY crappy Bushco policy you will not defend? Remember that Detroit fought off common sense requirements like seatbelts for years.This is the agency that is supposed to oversee them. They have always been open in the past. Do you wonder why the change? I sure do.

Posted by: BillS at August 24, 2007 6:31 PM
Comment #230605

David, thank you for your comment.

I don’t believe in blindly following “my party” through thick and thin, it’s outrageous and naive.

While my faith and values often steer me to the conservative right — that does not mean I am a right wing nutjob.

In fact, as of late, the GOP has often let me down and it’s becoming more and more difficult to trust them.

But I can’t say I fall into the left or the moderate/independent category because of my stance on abortion and stem cell research. (And you’re not the only one to disagree with me.)

I think it’s important to weed through some of the crap the GOP shovels my direction, and I’m happy to be able to write about this.


Jack,
I have to ask you a question. If your local hospital created a policy to prevent doctors from giving information off the record would you be okay with that?

If the President said that all politicians could no longer speak to the media and journalists on the record, would that be okay with you?

Don’t we as citizens have the right to what’s happening in our own flippin’ government?

Posted by: Dana J. Tuszke at August 24, 2007 8:17 PM
Comment #230606

BillS, thank you for your comment as well. :)

Posted by: Dana J. Tuszke at August 24, 2007 8:18 PM
Comment #230607

David

We should let the fact be the facts. Your point is EXACTLY CORRECT. If you let the bureaucrat speak for the USG, he borrows some of the USG power and takes it for himself. He gains credibility that he may not deserve. If we are interested in the facts, background works just fine. If we are interested in scoring points, we want people on the record.

By journalistic rules, a person speaking on background is not necessarily anonymous. Often it is fairly easy to figure out who the person is. It is only plausible deniablity. You see it all the time. He might be called a high official or a senior official. It has credibility, but you understand that he is not speaking FOR the agency and does not have the authority to commit his superiors.

It is a longstanding policy of many government agencies and departments that only certain people can be designated as the official spokesperson. It is because the official word gets to be the official policy and you cannot have a protean policy expressed by thousands of independent actors.

BillS & David

Very often when I defend Bush, I am just pointing out that what he is doing is really not what people think and/or it is merely a variant of a long standing policy. This kind of thing is nothing new. There is a difference mainly in the bureaucracy these days in that a significant percentage of them are democrats and some are openly hostile to President Bush. They WANT the policy to be other than it is. But they do not get to determine policy. Their job is just to carry it out. People who work in the USG have a right to dissent from the policy. They have a right to their own opinions. They even have a right to express these opinions to members of the media, but they do not have the right to speak for their agencies or departments. Being on background allows for the legitimate expression of opinion w/o involving the legitimacy of being the spokesman.

Posted by: Jack at August 24, 2007 8:29 PM
Comment #230610

Dana

You are familar with the rules of journalism.

On the record means it is open an quotable by name. Background means you can attribute it to an agreed upon source, i.e. senior official, western diplomat. Deep background is information that can be used w/o attribution or more likely should be confirmed independently and called “sources”. Off the record should not be used at all, although why anybody tells journalists anything off the record is beyond me.

In the case of a government official, he/she does not make policy. He can hand the journalist the official policy, attributable to the official spokesperson, or he can express his opinion in the various types of background.

The case of the politician is different. A politician by nature speaks for himself and can speak on the record as he wants. Just as you can go on the record talking about anything in your own private sphere or just as the owner of a firm can go on the record anytime. He IS the policy maker.

Re doctors, I do not see much reason for them to speak off the record, since off the record cannot be used. Speaking off the record is border line dishonest. They might speak on deep background.

Re knowing what is happening in your government, that is the job of the spokesperson. He can be held accountable BECAUSE his is the official word. The odinary bureaucrat speaks only for himself. In fact, if a dishonest political leader wants to leak, he lets one of his guys “speak for himself”.

Posted by: Jack at August 24, 2007 8:42 PM
Comment #230614

Yes, Jack. I AM familiar with the rules of journalism. And I’m not debating the definition of off the record. My post is not about the policies of reporters. It’s about the policy of the NHTSA.

And as a citizen of this country, I’m not going to sit back and say it’s okay that Nason can make a policy preventing ANY SINGLE PERSON of the organization from being attributed to a quote he or she makes.

I find this gives the organization a lot of leeway to say what they wish, but never be held accountable for their words. OR even, to say nothing at all and think they have no obligation to US the TAXPAYERS to report what they’re up to in their organization.

If you want to sit back in your bubble and agree with this, fine. But those of us who want to know how our government is operating various organizations will not stand for it.

Posted by: Jack at August 24, 2007 10:01 PM
Comment #230616

Dana, it is about time a conservative on this blog actually wrote about what should be a core American value. I consider myself to be one of those “damn moderates” because WHILE I HAVE STRONG BELIEFS, SOME ARE CONSIDERED CONSERVATIVE AND OTHERS LIBERAL. This is some conservatism I can agree with.

Posted by: 037 at August 24, 2007 10:17 PM
Comment #230620

I just do not understand the outcry.

If you allow people to speak on the record for attribution and specify that they are speaking only as private citizens and that their opinions do not necessarily represent those of the agency they work for, I would have no problem. However, I do not think that it would be very ineresting for journalists. The ONLY reason these guys are interesting is because of the implication that they are speaker with authority, but they clearly are not.

It is a cheap shot for a little guy to pretend to be a big shot. If Mr. Smith, a GS-11 has a private opinion, do the journalists line up to interview him? No. They interview him because of the implication that he is speaking for his agency or is a rebel within the agency.

If you want to find out what is happening in the USG, you can file a FOIA request. Journalists can probably gather any information they need on background and they could publish it as they pleased. This is not about information. It is about gotcha by journalists and attempts by bureaucrats to usurp the power of elected officials.

Posted by: Jack at August 24, 2007 11:17 PM
Comment #230625

When it comes to todays press I think of what Ben Franklin had to say about neglect….

“A little neglect may breed great mischief.

Posted by: Jr at August 25, 2007 12:00 AM
Comment #230637

Jack said: “If you want to find out what is happening in the USG, you can file a FOIA request.”

Absurd on its face. How can you support transparency and then make this comment above, putting the burden for transparency on the people, not their government. You seem to have the employee / employer relationship between the people and the government turned ass backwards here, Jack. The need to file a FOIA request should be relatively rare, not SOP for the people to stay appraised of what their government employees are doing.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 25, 2007 3:37 AM
Comment #230647


This is not new. It is another chapter in the continuing saga of His Magisty the King. The policy at NHTSA Is the standard not the exception. Remember NASA? Remember Cheney’s top secret oil meetings.

As for FOIA, in the last few weeks, the Administration has been suggesting that FOIA is not binding on the Administration. How many FOIA requests have been filed to obtain the records of the Cheney/oil executives policy.

The time to bring out the duct tape is when you are making policy that is contrary to the best interests of the people of America and you don’t want them to know what you are up to.

If the Administration were going to come down hard on mine safety, they would want to crow about it. If the Administration wants to ignore mine safety issues, they send their hired gun out to say they are reviewing mine safety regulations to see where they can be strengthened and they get out the duct tape.

Posted by: jlw at August 25, 2007 11:40 AM
Comment #230650

Jack-
Might I suggest a possibility to you? Perhaps the biggest reason this Administration doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt from the media is that it goes to such lengths to keep secrets.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s secrecy, there’s something people feel motivated to keep secret.

This administration concealed enough bad things in the course of its tenure that the balance of most folks expectations towards what it keeps secret is negative.

These people work for us. Should our employees, our public servants not be able to speak on the record? Their message control should be doing their jobs.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at August 25, 2007 12:20 PM
Comment #230651

David

I am not saying that government should hold unnecessary secrets. But when you let everybody talk on the record, you really DECREASE government accountability by diluting the accountability for policy. If any old GS-11 with a perceived grievance can go to the media and speak for his agency you are just destroying the policy making and management structure.

Let me give you a realistic scenario for bureaucratic politics.

IF I was hypothetically to I have on occasion needed to transmit some information w/o leaving fingerprints, maybe to launch a trial balloon or figure out how much resistance there will be to a change. My method would be ask the biggest office gossip if he had “heard” something share what I had “heard” and then ask him to keep it a secret. Sure enough, pretty soon everybody knows and I am shocked - shocked - that it got out. I am also interested in how the details have changed. Very often I could truthfully deny it because it has become exaggerated and if I were to reveal the real thing, everybody thinks it is a comprise. If it came out in the media, so much the better. My “shock” could go up exponentially and I could be a victim of the rumor and inuendo. When you empower everybody to be spokesman, you empower this kind of tactic and there are lots of people who know how to deploy it. If that is what you want in your government, fine. But be careful what you ask for. The result will not be greater transparency.

In the case of something like a warning, when does it become official? Some employees think they know more than they do about what is going on. By the nature of their jobs, they have part of the picture. It is like the blind men and the elephant. Do you want the guy who only knows about the tail describing the beast.

More information is not always useful, BTW. After the Lockerby disaster, the State Department started to share every potential risk with the public. As a result you get nothing but constant warnings, so many that you do not know when it is REALLY a danger. It is like the little boy calling wolf all day, every day, except it gets worse when thousands of little boys are crying wolf all the time.

Posted by: Jack at August 25, 2007 12:51 PM
Comment #230656


In this instance, there really is a wolf and the Congress has ignored that. As a result, Jack is ostracized while the wolf continues to devour.

Posted by: jlw at August 25, 2007 1:10 PM
Comment #230658

Jack

Is this spin practice? Not too convinceing. You take a suposition,personally concocted, that the reason for the new ruling is too many underlings speaking out of turn and then even include a slap at disloyal Democrats.If a car tends to flip over what possible political motive could a Dem have in telling people about it? You have zero basis for any of it. Why? Because the Bush appointed director will not meet with the press to even explain the reasoning.
Ok some counter spin.
1.The new director is as incompetant as most Bush appointees and wants to CYA. The old adage about conservatives run on the premise that government does not work and when they get elected they set out to prove it.
2.The new Director wants to gag reasearchers to protect large political supporters from liability in tort actions.
3.The new directer is under orders to implement a cost/benefit formula,so popular under Bushco,that takes into account the cost of fixing a safety problem and wieghs it against the number of kids that will burn to death as a result of inaction.The researchers and traditional spokesmen for the agency are fighting the new policy.

Any evidence for the above. Not a lick.But I could sight pages of examples and statements to support any of the three and you know it. That is another great danger of secrecy.That is another reason why transparency is important. You start from the position the administration is benevolent. Myself and most others in the country start from the position that it is not. Both camps draw their own conclusions. This is no way to unify a people but a sure way to devide them.

Posted by: BillS at August 25, 2007 1:49 PM
Comment #230661

Dana:

Congratulations for not following the party line. A government, whether run by conservatives or liberals, must be open. This secrecy destroys democracy.

Posted by: Paul Siegel at August 25, 2007 2:10 PM
Comment #230663

BillS, you raise an interesting contradiction. Republicans start from the premise that government is inefficient, wasteful, and prone to corruption. Yet, Republicans defend Executive Privilege and all manner of other defenses against their own elected being transparent.

It is an inherent contradiction. Their view of government demands maximum transparency. Not defending against it.

Then of course, given their view of government, self-fulfilling prophesy is rather inescapable for them when in power, isn’t it? At least their last terms in power would evidence the veracity of that conclusion.

If a voter accepts the power of self-fulfilling prophesy, (reams of documented evidence) which states that what one assumes to be true, one acts to make true - behavior shaped by their assumptions, then the voter must either avoid voting Republican, or, if voting Republican, demand the utmost in transparency in exchange for their vote.

Could it be that Republicans are losing registered voters to Independent status because of the cognitive dissonance created by having to defend their Republican vote in the wake of Republican misdeeds and contradictions?

It was certainly true of Democrats in 1992 and 1994, causing them to be swept out of office for the contradiction of campaigning on responsibility and general welfare while acting fiscally irresponsible and promoting individual welfare which was destructive of family values.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 25, 2007 3:03 PM
Comment #230668

This policy does not stop anybody from talking with the media. It is not about secrecy. It is about accountability. I would defend it if it were a Dem policy. It is just about who gets to speak FOR the agency.

Background is NOT off the record. Any reporter can get and publish any information he needs on background. Reporters sometimes do not like background because it makes their jobs a little more complicated and it makes the stories a little less interesting, but it does not stifle the flow of information. Anything said on background can be published. It can be quoted. It just cannot be attributed to a particular named individual and so cannot be interpreted as the official policy.

Most employees do not know how to talk to the media and most are not in a position to answer questions outside their own narrow specialties. Most reporters, however, will ask people about their feelings and opinions concerning things where they have no experience. An average person is willing - eager - to do so. This is okay. BUT their opinions are not those of the agencies. They are not the spokesmen.

I have lots of opinions. They are not the same as those of my employers. You can quote any of my opinons, but I am not justified in speaking as a representative of my employer and my employer makes no difference in my opinion. If I speak as spokesman, then you can say that what I say is the official policy, but then it is not MY opinion.

Many journalists and bureaucrats are dishonest about this. They get some GS-11 on the record. Then they ask his opinions. Why are his opinions interesting? BECAUSE they can be attributed to his agency. If his opinions are interesting on their own, you do not need attribution. Background works. Information is easily passed.

This is really not an issue or at least not the issue you guys think it is. It is not about openess in government. It is about who is accountable.

Frankly, we should all be very suspicious of any official who speaks on the record for his agency but not as a representive of his agency. He is either nieve, uniformed or playing some manipulative game.

Posted by: Jack at August 25, 2007 4:35 PM
Comment #230669

Jack said: “It is just about who gets to speak FOR the agency.”

No, its not. It is about the Agency not speaking to the American public AT ALL. That is the net effect of anonymity talking to the media. The Agency reveals nothing, thus bypassing transparency altogether, diverting attention and focus instead on the reliability of anonymity rather than the content revealed by the anonymous source.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 25, 2007 4:48 PM
Comment #230673

David

All I know about this subject I read in the newspaper articles in the links provided. According to those reports, the employees can still speak on background. This does not stop the flow of information.

At times in my career, I have served as spokesman for my employer. At times I have spoken on the record. Even as spokesman, there were times when we chose to speak on background. (I never tell anybody anything off the record. It does not make sense If it is off the record, just keep it to yourself.) I have also designated others to speak on background “officially”. This tends to keep the reporters honest and it protects the employees. They can speak MORE freely about the things they know and the reporters are not tempted to stray into areas where the employee has no expertise.

I can find nothing in this policy that would interfere with the legitimate exchange of information. The articles in the links try to make it a bigger deal than it is.

Think of it like this. I have been writing my opinions on Watchblog for years, but I do not get to speak FOR Watchblog. I would not publicly speak on the subject w/o the approval of the editors because I really do not know very much about the organization beyond my own narrow part. If a reporter asks what “Jack” thinks, I could probalby tell him; if he asks what “Watchblog” thinks, I can only speculate. If you add $1.50 to the deal, my speculation and that can buy you a cheap cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Speaking for others w/o their permission is bad matters and bad policy.

Posted by: Jack at August 25, 2007 5:07 PM
Comment #230680

This is about controlling information. It’s about power. I do not see how the public is served by not allowing government employees to be accountable for what they tell the press.

The policy in question may make life easier for agency appointees, but that’s not compelling to me.

It’s not unreasonable to see a pattern here, as others have pointed out.

Posted by: Gerrold at August 25, 2007 7:41 PM
Comment #230682

Gerrold

Mine is a technical point. If an employee wants to talk the the press, it is his business. But employees of the government are generally interesting only when they represent the government.

Mr. Smith of the State Department is interesting; Mr. Smith of 1313 Mockingbird Lane is not. The employee is borrowing authority. If he is interviewed in the media, he may give his opinion. If the journalist was to put in the caveat that Mr. Smith was speaking as a private citizen voicing his opinion, I would have no trouble. But I doubt that is what the journalist or the employee want. They want to imply that the this guy REPESENTS the USG. That is not true. People who are near power sometimes fool themselves into thinking they have it.

There is an old story of the tiger and the mouse. The mouse claims he is feared by all animals. The tiger doubts this is true. SO the mouse challenges the tiger. He says, “walk behind me and see how the animals treat me.” This the tiger does. He is very surprised and says to the mouse, “You are right. They fear you and flee from you as they do from me.”

I suggest that the employee is the mouse and the USG the tiger. Do you really care what the employee has to say, or do you care because he has implied that the tiger is behind him?

Do you really think a Clinton appointee would allow freelancing among the rank and file with the media?

And you are right. It is about power, not information. It is the political leaders in our counry who have the power to make policy. Bureaucrats sometimes try to seize some of that power. IF they can articulate their version to the press, they can often influence the policy discussion in ways they have no right to do. It is a type of usurpation.

Posted by: Jack at August 25, 2007 8:00 PM
Comment #230684

Jack
Still just spinning. You have no basis for saying or even believeing that that is the reason for the changes.Imagining that could be the reason is as close as you can claim.No explanation has been given for the changes. PS That same agency did not have this new policy under a Clinton appointee,hence the term “new.”

Posted by: BillS at August 25, 2007 8:19 PM
Comment #230687

Jack,

If an government employee contradicts agency policy, then I imagine he or she would soon get an earful. The fact that he or she is named forces accountability.

When I was a journalist, we always wanted attribution. It gives a story more credibility and also provides some assurance that the reporter is not just making things up. Given the distrust many have for the media, government policies that make it harder to get attribution are not likely to improve matters. Outside of Washington, journalists rarely use unnamed sources.

You assume that sources just want to steal credibility. Look, sure, sometimes people do talk to make themselves seem more important, but that’s not the only motivator. And as a journalist, I was always very unimpressed by people who didn’t want to be named. Gutless wonders.

My opinion wouldn’t change if the future Clinton administration has the same policy.

Posted by: Gerrold at August 25, 2007 8:48 PM
Comment #230691

Gerrold

As a journalist, you are familiar with the rules of background. Like all journalists, you liked to get people on the record, but as a responsible journalist you must have understood that lots of employees like to talk, but not all talk for the organization.

Gerrold & BillS

A significant section of the bureaucracy does not like the Bush policies. They are entitled to their opinions, but they are not entitled to publicly air them with attribution to their jobs. If journalists want to quote John Smith, that is fine. When they add John Smith or the DoD, it implies that Mr. Smith is giving more than his own opinion.

It is just ridiculous to assume that every employee should have the right to freelance policy. The organization - any organization - has the right to determine who will speak FOR them. Government employees carry out policy. They do not make it. As a journalist, you should understand that Mr. GS 11’s opinion is unlikely to be official policy.

If you are doing an investigative report, trying to uncover wrongdoing, it is unlikey that you WANT to put the person on the record. If you are doing an ordinary report, you probably want to get the most authoritative voice - i.e. the official voice. If you are trying to UNDERSTAND the situation, you probably want to go on background so that the person can speak freely.

When speaking with journalists, any but the dumbest official is worried about how the words will be parsed and how quotes could be placed or misplaced. If I am trying to explain something to you, I want to explain the whole thing, maybe give examples. I do not want you to be able to quote the one part where I misspoke.

This whole thing looks like a big non-issue where a manager is trying to tighten up the policy. This makes some of the bureaucrats and their journalist friends annoyed. They fight back by acting like it is a move to secrecy.

As I understand it, people can talk all they want, but when something is attributed to the agency, it has to be the official policy. That does not seem unreasonable.

And yes, I would also defend it if it was a CLinton policy.

Posted by: Jack at August 25, 2007 10:19 PM
Comment #230696

Jack,

Did you read the NYT article? (Dana, your link doesn’t appear to work — here’s one that did for me.)

The reporter wanted to go over some technical issues with a known expert, but the new political appointed administrator nixed that. Of course the reporter wanted to attribute this source; that’s what good reporters do. This isn’t about policy; it’s about getting authoritative information. When the administrator said he could interview her, he declined because he wanted an expert, not some politically appointed administrator. Ironically, when he said he would like to interview her about the new policy, she declined. Go figger.

I think you are overreacting, frankly. This isn’t about every schmo making policy; this is about getting credible information out to the public. For the administrator, it’s making sure she’s the face of the NHTSA.

Anyway, here’s a few interesting passages from the story:

The agency’s new policy effectively means that some of the world’s top safety researchers are no longer allowed to talk to reporters or to be freely quoted about automotive safety issues that affect pretty much everybody.

“My God,” said Joan Claybrook, who was N.H.T.S.A. administrator from 1977 to 1981 and is now president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. Given that N.H.T.S.A. is the leading source of automotive safety information in the United States, its researchers are public officials and people are entitled to “know what information they have, whether it is on paper or in their heads,” Ms. Claybrook said.

The policy of allowing information to be attributed only to political appointees is intermittently enforced around other parts of the Department of Transportation, including the Federal Railroad Administration. But it is a radical change from the way N.H.T.S.A has operated for at least 20 years. In the past, reporters could talk to its experts and the agency was proud to discuss its research and accomplishments.

Ms. Nason felt it was necessary for N.H.T.S.A. to have a “central spokesperson” and “we were finding a lot of stuff did not need to be on the record,” David Kelly, her chief of staff, told me. He also insisted, after our telephone conversation, that he did not want to be quoted and had intended to speak only on background. (My notes show no such request.)

It’s hard to see how this sort of … paranoia? control? willful and insensitive use of power? … is in the public’s interests, but it’s easy to see how such a policy could serve the political appointee’s.

Any evidence of real problems caused by the NHTSA being more open in the past?

Posted by: Gerrold at August 25, 2007 11:48 PM
Comment #230706

Gerrold, quite right. The people paid for that information. The people have a right to that information straight from the authority’s mouth, not a political spinster, who will censor and edit the information for political party purposes. The government was never meant to serve the needs of any political party. But, that is precisely what Democrats and Republicans have done to it.

This is not the government our founding fathers contemplated, and it is OBVIOUSLY not a government capable of addressing Americas most dangerous and costly problems facing the nation. Arson of western forests is but one of an enormous number of ways individuals frustrated and angry at government are beginning the revolt while maintaining low risk of being detected or caught. It is going to get a lot worse if government does not start solving more problems than it solves.

Millions of children are being raised right this minute to not trust and even to hate this government, listening to their parents legitimate rants and condemnations of it. There is a price to be paid for a generation of children being raised in this atmosphere. A large price; but, perhaps that is the most affordable way to bring about the changes that are required.

I should think voting out incumbents would be the least costly way, but, that option doesn’t appear to be sweeping the nation, only making modest inroads every 2 to 4 years. Time is running out. These children will be adults in 4 to 10 years, and Americas difficulties will be more dire then.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 26, 2007 1:37 AM
Comment #230721

Gerrold
“Any evidence of real problems caused by NHTSA being more open in the past?

Yes. Auto makers have had to recall unsafe vehicles and they have had to pay large damage awards to people they have injured.Aparently Jack and the Bush regime figure that is damage that must be controlled.Now they will be able to twist and ignore scientic reasearch like they have been able to do in the FDA and NASA.

Posted by: BillS at August 26, 2007 1:42 PM
Comment #230722

It’s easy to understand the reasons for such a policy (and Jack does a good job of pointing them out) but it seems like the policy would benefit from some common sense compromises.

As a public safety agency, employees ought to be allowed to discuss established findings and policies without getting special clearance—if for no other reason that getting clearances over such routine matters are a waste of time and resources.

Should an employee of the Surgeon General, for example, need special permission to talk about the dangers of smoking? Why? If that employee wants to opine that smoking should be banned, however, then that opinion shouldn’t be presented as the official position of the government and they should offer their views either off the official record or as a private citizen.

I’d suggest that the NHTSA should make clear to its own employees a set of things they’re allowed to discuss on the record without permission. If they want to go beyond that, then they can always ask for permission. And if they have differences of opinion with the information they’re permitted to discuss, they can just go off the record. A clear common sense policy should be put in place, and if there are those who don’t want to follow it, there’s a very simple remedy available: quit or be fired.

Posted by: Loyal Opposition at August 26, 2007 1:54 PM
Comment #230734

LO expresses the situation as I see it.

Gerrold

Nothing stops the reporter from talking to the source. Nothing stops him from printing what he learns. He just cannot attribute it to the particular employee. If all we are concerned with is information, we have no trouble. The journalist has no trouble finding things out. He can confirm it independently. If he wants he can even write that he has learned certain information, but officials will not confirm it officially and he can publicly wonder why not.

I do not think we can just dismiss the idea of bureaucratic politics. Dems like to dicount such things, as most USG employees lean Dem and most honestly believe that the mandates of their agencies should be expanded and funded.

The simple fact is that if a bureaucrat speaks w/o official authorization, he is speaking only for himself, listing only his opinion. If either the journalist or the bureaucrat implies otherwise, they are lying. Given that, there is no particular reason to quote anybody by name, except for the convenience of the journalist or to make his story sound more authoritative.

David

A government office is not a loose confederation of independent operators, any of whose opinion is worth as much as anybody else’s. If you ask a expert bureaucrat about the policy, he can tell you in the capacity of his job. You do not really need his name, since you would presumably get the same answer from any informed person at the agency. If you ask him what the policy SHOULD be, he is strictly on his own. He has no right to speak as a government official on this matter. So you either have no need to quote him personally as a government official or no honest reason to do so.

BTW - anybody who commmits arson in a national forest is an evil SOB. If it is a misguided attempt to screw the government, he is just plain stupid. We had a guy in our area doing things like that (for his own weird reasons. He was not anti-government). Suffice to say that the authorities were SECOND on the list of threats after some of the local guys found out about him.

Posted by: Jack at August 26, 2007 7:48 PM
Comment #230745

Jack, you completely dodged the question and issue. The information obtained by the experts at this agency was bought and paid for by the American people for their OWN safety, it is not the proprietary property of a partisan Republican Bureaucrat appointed to head the agency. Any of the experts at the agency have an obligation to share research information with the media if asked for it.

Our government was not invented to serve the needs of a political party. It was invented to serve the needs of the American people. This Republican Bureaucrat defies fundamental conservative principles in denying the people access to the expert researched information which they paid hard earned taxes for to help keep themselves safer. The media represents the people in asking for this PUBLICLY owned information and have every right to know the name of the AUTHOR of the information being provided to the public, for source validation purposes.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 26, 2007 9:43 PM
Comment #230749

So, Jack, as a reporter, I call Joe Schmo, a nationally recognized expert in auto safety. He’s the Man on the arcane technical stuff, but when I get ahold of him, he says he can’t be attributed because he’s currently working for the NHTSA. I say, “What the fuck?” and he, embarassed, tells me that some political muckety muck says he can only speak on background unless I jump through a buncha hoops and get official permission. I gotta get my story done in 45 minutues; I don’t have that kind of time. As a reporter, I rarely have freakin’ days to sit on my ass waiting for special permission to quote an expert on a friggin’ technical detail. Hell, this is a page 5 story at best. Sure, I can use his information as background and let the public wonder how I became such an expert, or I can quote anonymous sources, which seems awfully damn stupid for a non-political technical point.

As far as policy goes, that’s silly. If my source contradicts political policy, he’s going to catch it from his political boss.The only way most of my sources would contradict official policy is anonymously. Citing sources is important for accountability — lots of schmucks will say whatever if they are not held accountable.

What we are talking about is getting credible information and in journalism that often means talking to an authoritative source. If a nationally recognized experts clarifies a technical point, that means a hell of a lot more than if I do, or if anonymous sources do. Policies such as the NHTSA’s make it harder for the public to know what’s going on. That’s essential for citizens to make informed decisions, and no, I’m not just talking about politics.

Exactly how does this policy serve the public’s interest? Remember, the government holds power upon the people’s sufferance.

Posted by: Gerrold at August 26, 2007 10:24 PM
Comment #230751

Or, I get ahold of the expert, and he says, Sure, quote me, but don’t mention that I work for the NHTSA. (This is assuming that the expert still has the right to speak as a private citizen on his field of study.) I say, what the fuck? Everyone knows you do. He says, yeah, pretty damn stupid, no? And I say, I can’t promise not to mention that fact because the friggin’ government can’t tell me what I can report and what I can’t. He says, yup, but if you mention what everyone knows, I get fired. So I say, okaaaaay. How about I don’t mention that you work for the NHTSA but tell the readers why, and if they think that’s insane, they can call Ms. Nason, head of the NHTSA.

Or how about in a sidebar, I sketch out my expert’s career including the fact he now works for the NHTSA? Does that violate this insane policy?

Or how about every damn time I have to get information on background (no matter how politically innocuous) I tell readers it’s Ms. Nason’s policy and list her phone number and email address?

—-

I just love the notion that there is no good reason to quote sources by name.

Posted by: Gerrold at August 26, 2007 10:44 PM
Comment #230754

Gerrold and David

They can give you all the information you want. Journalists just cannot attribute it to a named source.

The expert’s status comes from his connection with the USG. If he works for the USG he is no longer an independent expert. If the USG pays for his work, all his work belongs to the USG. USG information generally belongs to the public, but by nature it is not the work of one man.

If the expert clarifies a point, it should be enough that the agency clarifies the point. It is very troubling if particular bureaucrats are the only ones you can go to. If he gives the official policy, you can quote the offical policy. You do not need the bureaucrat’s name.

We will not resolve this. I WOULD defend this policy for Dems. I do not know much about this particular agency, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that other parts of the USG, such as the Department of State had a very similar policy all during the Clinton years and way before. Only the principles, the spokesmen or those they designate get to speak for the agency or bureau.

To me this makes sense. I do not see it in political terms. I believe that having an official designation enhances accountability. If you get 100 people speaking for themselves, you just have confusion.

Some agencies may have had a looser system in the past. These sorts of things come and go. But it is good policy not to allow everybody to talk on the record. I doubt that it will be any different under the Dems.

Posted by: Jackj at August 26, 2007 10:56 PM
Comment #230766

Jack said: “They can give you all the information you want. Journalists just cannot attribute it to a named source.”

We are going in circles, Jack. Your statement returns to the agency discrediting the experts by forcing them to appear anonymous in the Media which directly undermines the credibility of the information which they provide for public consumption. Anonymous sources are nowhere near as credible as named sources, and anonymous sources forces the debate away from the content of the information released to the credibility of the anonymous source.

Clever tactic. But, wrong, unethical, and undemocratic in light of the fact that the American taxpayer pays the salaries of those experts and for the information their efforts produce for the public’s safety. The PUBLIC has every right to know the name of the person they hired when that person reports information paid for by the American taxpayer having bearing on public safety involving transportation issues.

Your defense and this administration’s action here, is indefensible by any principle of good American government. The agency’s action attempts to make government regulations serve the party in charge, instead of the government regulations serving the interests of the American people, as it was always intended to be.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 27, 2007 12:12 AM
Comment #230781

Jack:

If the USG pays for his work, all his work belongs to the USG. USG information generally belongs to the public, but by nature it is not the work of one man.

Errm, no. If the USG pays for his work, all his work belongs to the *citizens* of the US. Works created by an agency of the US Government are public domain at the moment of creation, barring their classification.

Moreover, you ignore the real impact of this policy, Jack. You essentially claim that by mentioning where they work, someone is trying to “borrow” the credibility of the agency and act as their spokesperson. Errm, no. They are establishing what experience makes them an expert on the subject, and part of that is their job experience in the field. It’s why you list your current place of employment on your resume, especially if you’ve worked there for years. Would you give a shit about Condoleezza Rice’s opinions on National Security if she hadn’t been Bush’s National Security Advisor? Would you give a shit about her opinions on foreign affairs if she couldn’t tell anyone she was currently Secretary of State? For the same reason, most people aren’t going to care about John Smith’s random opinions on product safety… but they WILL care about his opinions if he’s a senior analyst for the NHTSA. That’s not because he’s speaking for the agency, it’s because his career establishes his credibility as a source.

Posted by: Jarandhel at August 27, 2007 10:15 AM
Comment #230782

Jack:

By the way, you are also consistently conflating “research results” and “technical findings” with “agency policy”. This is very evident in the following passage:

And you are right. It is about power, not information. It is the political leaders in our counry who have the power to make policy. Bureaucrats sometimes try to seize some of that power. IF they can articulate their version to the press, they can often influence the policy discussion in ways they have no right to do. It is a type of usurpation.

Technical sources, experts, are quoted on matters of fact not on matters of policy. In the NHTSA’s case, on matters of fact such as whether or not particular automotive products are safe for consumers and why. On whether or not SUVs are safe. If there are studies which have been done which say they are not, “policy” should not be the issue. The facts about how unsafe they are and why they are unsafe should be. This is not a usurpation of authority. Policy is official opinion on what to do about the facts. An agency has a right to release an official policy. But they don’t have a right to release only official facts which agree with that policy and muffle others.

Posted by: Jarandhel at August 27, 2007 10:26 AM
Comment #230789


Whistleblowers take notice. If you run your mouth and tell the public that this Administration is reducing or eliminating regulations that could lead to higher deaths you will be fired. Past Republican Administrations have been stymied in their attempts to reduce or eliminate regulations on business by experts who run their mouths and warn the public.

Posted by: jlw at August 27, 2007 10:53 AM
Comment #230792


Does the Administrations new policy apply to crash test dummies as well. Are they still alowed to tell us about their experiences.

Posted by: jlw at August 27, 2007 11:02 AM
Comment #230802

Jack

You are revealing your true role here as an apologist for administration policy. Your bullheadedness about not admitting that this policy is wrong and anti-conservative unmasks your true intent. Reread your responses and see how little sense they make. Information includes the source of that information, so the reporter clearly doesn’t have all the information needed to inform the public. To allow partisan strategy to color the information generated by tax dollars and communicated by people paid by tax dollars is unconscionable, and if it were a Democratic administration, you would be all over it.

Posted by: mental wimp at August 27, 2007 12:03 PM
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