How the FDA - And Other Agencies - Shape What You Read About Them

An important investigation by Charles Seife in Scientific American looks at how scientific newsmakers – in this case the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – use “close-hold embargoes” to manipulate news coverage on breaking stories. Embargoes in themselves are a common enough practice in journalism; the special feature of a “close-hold” embargo is that it conditions a reporter’s access to a forthcoming story on not seeking comment from outside, that is to say independent or adversary, sources. 

The result of this kind of embargo, critics say, is to turn reporters into stenographers by ensuring that no expert outside perspective contrary to the newsmaker’s makes it into the crucial first round of coverage. And the FDA uses the technique to go further, according to Seife: it “cultivates a coterie of journalists whom it keeps in line with threats.” In fact, it even “deceives” disfavored major news organizations like Fox News “with half-truths to handicap them in their pursuit of a story.” 

The FDA has used this means of forestalling informed critical reaction on major, controversial regulations such as the recent “deeming” rule governing e-cigarettes and vaping. It also used the same technique in unveiling a major public health ad campaign – taking measures, as you might put it, to shape opinion about its shaping of opinion. An FDA official even upbraided a New York Times reporter who, unlike her colleagues, noted the close-hold embargo in her report. The agency resented its news-shaping methods becoming public. 

The whole article is a case study in how government-as-newsmaker - and by no means just the Food and Drug Administration - can get the coverage it wants.