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Federal Court Orders CDC to Release Trump-Era Media Policies

This Sept. 9, 2005, photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the then newly constructed 11-story Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory at the CDC's Roybal campus in Atlanta.

A federal court order compelling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to hand over Trump-era policies on media interactions has been welcomed by First Amendment experts.

The ruling came a year after the Knight First Amendment Institute filed a lawsuit against the CDC because the public health agency had failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request

"We're thrilled with the decision, and we think it is the right result," Knight Institute staff attorney Anna Diakun told VOA. "The government was hiding these documents behind claims of privilege that weren't well supported, and the court recognized that the government had not met its burden and hadn't showed that it could properly withhold these documents."

The court initially ordered the release of documents by September 24, but that date was extended to November 16 to give the government time to decide whether it wants to appeal.

The court, which issued its ruling on September 17, ordered the CDC to conduct a new search for documents under the FOIA request, saying the original request had been interpreted too narrowly.

The original request, submitted by Knight in March 2020, sought copies of policies that the CDC issued to staff about speaking with the media and the public.

Reporting at that time alleged that the Trump administration was requiring CDC officials to coordinate with the vice president's office before speaking with journalists. Reports said that the government had instituted this policy to control the narrative after public health officials had publicly contradicted the administration's talking points.

In June 2020, an initial set of documents was released in response to Knight's FOIA request.

Included in the documents was an April 30, 2020, email from a CDC spokesperson ordering communications personnel to ignore interview requests from Voice of America.

"NOTE: as a rule, do not send up requests for Greta Van Sustern or anyone affiliated with Voice of America," read the email, which addressed guidance on approving media requests before they were sent to the Department of Health and Human Services or the vice president's office. The surname "Van Susteren" was misspelled in the original document.

The email included a link to a White House newsletter that had accused the U.S.-funded broadcaster of promoting foreign propaganda.

Veteran news anchor and lawyer Van Susteren reported extensively on the pandemic for VOA.

The CDC did not respond to VOA's request for comment.

When asked for comment, VOA referred to the statement it had issued at the time, which described the CDC’s denial of advance media requests as “troubling.” The statement rejected allegations that VOA promoted foreign propaganda.

Information lifeline

Policies around media communications threatened the flow of information during an unprecedented and hectic time, Diakun said.

"Transparency is critical during a public health emergency, and it's vital to know how an administration is controlling the flow of information," she said. "Especially now, when there are so many conflicting sources of information, knowing how the government is controlling what you hear is really important for understanding the state of affairs."

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism in Maryland, said the case underscores what she sees as broader inadequacies of the Trump administration's communications regarding the pandemic.

"It was so disorganized. It was frightening. And you don't know how much of the blame belongs to the White House, how much belongs to the CDC, how much belongs to the [National Institutes of Health] or the [Food and Drug Administration]. This was an incompetent nightmare," Dalglish said in an interview with VOA. "And it doesn't really matter, in the end, if it was political incompetence, deliberate incompetence or just plain incompetence."

In some ways, this case underscores the realities of the challenges that journalists will always face, Dalglish said.

"Like it or not, we're all going to be handled," she said. "But there are degrees of professionalism in the handling."

Restricted access and reduced transparency made reporting on the pandemic more challenging, according to Dan Diamond, who reported on COVID-19 for U.S. news site Politico until January 2021.

"Being able to talk to officials who were directly involved in the response is essential for the reporters — like, if you don't hear directly from those officials and you're forced to either parse official statements that have been filtered through the press office, or you're going on background, off record, to try and get the true story," said Diamond, who works as a national health reporter at The Washington Post.

Those policies restricted the flow of information to the American population, according to Diamond.

"It makes it that much harder to convey to the American people what's actually going on at the highest levels of government," he said. "It requires more detective work, more due diligence."

Government-instituted barriers to reporting on the pandemic have likely also had implications for public health, according to Dalglish, who serves on the board of the nonprofit News Leaders Association.

"There is no question in my mind that this behavior and these instructions really aided the anti-vaccine movement," Dalglish told VOA. "By sowing confusion and doubt, it aided their particular mission."

Although the court ruling is a probable win for news access, reporters who cover the pandemic are not out of the woods, according to Diakun.

"The Biden administration is certainly doing a better job of putting science front and center in its messaging," she said. "But there are always problems surrounding access. And this administration should do everything in its power to facilitate communication between agency experts and the public that they serve."