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When the FDA Plays Hardball

A Scientific American investigation has revealed that the US Food and Drug Administration "manipulates the media," and has been "arm-twisting journalists into relinquishing their reportorial independence." Unfortunately, the magazine adds, other agencies are now doing the same thing.

The article tells the story of a day in April 2014, when the FDA promised NPR a scoop on a story, but only on the condition that the FDA would dictate who NPR could interview. "This kind of deal offered by the FDA — known as a close-hold embargo — is an increasingly important tool used by scientific and government agencies to control the behavior of the science press," SciaAm says. "Or so it seems. It is impossible to tell for sure because it is happening almost entirely behind the scenes. We only know about the FDA deal because of a wayward sentence inserted by an editor at the New York Times. But for that breach of secrecy, nobody outside the small clique of government officials and trusted reporters would have known that the journalists covering the agency had given up their right to do independent reporting."

Using documents obtained through a FOIA request, the magazine adds it saw that this tactic was widely used, alongside deception, favoritism, and even threats. "By using close-hold embargoes and other methods, the FDA, like other sources of scientific information, are gaining control of journalists who are supposed to keep an eye on those institutions," SciAm says. "The watchdogs are being turned into lapdogs."

One problem is that the embargo system is such an established reality in the world of scientific journalism that no one complains, or even thinks too hard, about it. But close-hold embargoes go a step further, and even seasoned journalists are starting to balk, SciAm reports. The stories that tend to emerge from such embargoes "almost uniformly cleav[e] to the FDA's party line," the magazine adds.

Ivan Oransky, editor of the blog Embargo Watch, has complained that the FDA is trying to turn journalists "into stenographers."

"No matter how rare it might be, there is documentary evidence of its happening multiple times, and each instance since 2011 is a violation of the FDA's official media policy, which explicitly bans close-hold embargoes," SciAm says. "This policy still stands, just as it did before the last close-hold embargo. The smart money says that the agency's unofficial policy still stands, too — and the favoritism and close-hold embargoes continue. It is apparently too sweet an arrangement for the FDA simply to walk away."

But it's not just the fault of government, Oransky tells the magazine. Journalists aslo need to take some of the blame. "We as journalists need to look inward a little bit and think about why all of us feel we absolutely have to publish something at embargo [expiration] when we don't think we have the whole story?" he tells SciAm