A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention email released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) tells communications staff to ignore media requests from Voice of America, according to documents published by the Knight First Amendment Institute.
Documents released under the FOIA include an April 30 email sent from Michawn Rich with the subject “Rundown.” The email describes a CDC media request process to help a co-worker named Rachael to “navigate [her] new role.”
Rich, a Department of Agriculture spokesperson, was moved to the CDC to help handle communications related to the pandemic earlier this year, Politico reported.
Under a section on approving media requests before they are sent to the Department of Health and Human Services or Office of the Vice President, the email states: “NOTE: as a rule, do not send up requests for Greta Van Sustern [sic] or anyone affiliated with Voice of America.”
It then links to a story published in the White House daily newsletter that accused the U.S.-funded broadcaster of promoting foreign propaganda.
The names of the other people mentioned in the document include the CDC’s acting director of public affairs and CDC public affairs officers.
The CDC acknowledged receiving VOA's request for comment and said a spokesperson would follow up. VOA has not received a response.
Veteran U.S. news anchor and lawyer Van Susteren hosts the weekly “Plugged In” news show with VOA and also works for the U.S. broadcaster Gray Television, where she hosts a weekly political program.
“The thing that's stunning to me is that it's VOA and I'm specifically named and nobody at the CDC, or the White House, or anyplace else has ever said that my reporting on the coronavirus or anything else has been unfair or inaccurate,” Van Susteren told VOA, adding that it was “absurd to blackball a person.”
Van Susteren has reported extensively on the pandemic for both news outlets and interviewed Vice President Mike Pence about the pandemic for her syndicated Gray TV show, “Full Court Press,” that aired April 5.
VOA Director Amanda Bennett said the broadcaster was shocked and troubled by the internal CDC documents.
“VOA, a federally-funded independent news organization, strongly rejects the accusations and calls on the CDC to immediately withdraw the instructions,” Bennett said in a June 14 statement.
“For a federal agency’s public affairs office to categorically deny in advance interview requests from VOA journalists, including our colleague Greta Van Susteren, based on a White House opinion statement referring to an Associated Press story about COVID-19 shared by the VOA newsroom as ‘propaganda,’ is even more troubling,” the statement said
VOA issued a public statement to the propaganda allegations on April 10.
The CDC email was one of four documents released in response to a FOIA by the Knight Institute, an independent group focused on expanding freedom of the press, filed on March 19, and a lawsuit to expedite the request on April 2. The institute published the documents on June 12.
The documents cover CDC policies on social media use, media requests and releasing information to the news media. A document titled “Draft CDC Communication and Media Strategy for the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Response” was fully redacted.
The Knight Institute said the lawsuit came in response to reports alleging that CDC experts were being prevented from speaking with the press or public and had been told to coordinate with the Vice President’s Office before speaking with journalists.
“We brought this lawsuit because we were concerned about the politicization of public health messaging and we thought it was critical for the public to know if and how the administration was stage-managing CDC communications, so that the public was able to judge for themselves the accuracy of any statements,” Anna Diakun, staff attorney of the Knight First Amendment Institute, told VOA.
“From the documents we've received so far, the Office of the Vice President’s role has been totally redacted, so it is impossible for us to know exactly what role that office is playing,” she said.
The Knight Institute is to receive more documents on June 18 that Diakun said the center hopes will address what role if any the Vice President’s Office played.
The Vice President’s Office declined VOA’s request for comment.
“What may be unusual is that it’s been exposed, I don’t know if it’s unusual.” Van Susteren said of the alleged blacklisting.
“No administration, whether it's Obama, Bush 41, or Clinton or anybody going back has liked the media,” she said. “But I've been at all these news organizations and I have never had this happen to me before.”
VOA Director Bennett said it was difficult to determine the effect the CDC ban may have had on the international broadcaster’s coverage of the pandemic.
“Efforts such as those outlined in the CDC memo can result in the kind of chilling effect on our journalism that we regularly see in the markets we broadcast to that have no free press – including in China and Russia,” she said in a statement.
Diakun said the Knight Institute was concerned to see from the FOIA request that CDC staff were told to ignore press queries from VOA. “It is imperative that the CDC ensures steady and timely access to information, especially in the midst of a public health crisis,” she told VOA.