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FCC Security Criticism Helping Prompt Media Industry 'Summit'

Prompted in part by last week's manhandling of a reporter at an FCC meeting, the National Press Club told us Thursday it plans to organize "a summit" among news, public affairs and security interests to discuss best practices or possible new models for media access to government agencies. "We have had too many of these incidents happen," said NPC Journalism Institute Freedom Fellow Kathy Kiely. "Having a conversation might be helpful" in balancing security concerns with maximizing openness, she said. Kiely said the FCC has been invited to participate. The agency didn't comment.

The incident and subsequent criticisms of the FCC (see 1705190031), as well as a reporter having his credential temporarily taken by the agency last year (see 1607140052), come as government in general is becoming less accessible to the public and media, critics say. Some say that line of criticism may be misguided. National Association of Government Communicators President-elect Chris O'Neil told us that "when people say they don't have access, I don't think that's accurate. They don't have access in their time frame that matches the digital environment. Everybody wants to be first."

The issue of public and media access at government meetings is coming up more frequently at all levels of government, said Society of Professional Journalists President Lynn Walsh. Public officials increasingly don't make themselves available for phone calls and direct communications through their PR staff, making public meetings one of the few ways to catch them, Walsh said. She said SPJ contacted the Obama administration about growing difficulties in getting access to federal officials, and also sent a letter to then-President-elect Donald Trump, though it hasn't heard back. "We really do think it's something that has to come from the top down," Walsh said.

There isn't one model or list of best practices for public access at government meetings, media experts told us. Under the general presumption of openness, government agencies don't have to make themselves available to the media "though there's that expectation," said Jeffrey Blevins, head of the University of Cincinnati journalism department. "The acme of openness is Capitol Hill or any legislative body where reporters can walk up to principals."

Walsh said one of the biggest issues in constrained government openness is the growing use of PR professionals. "You see these armies of public relations individuals," she said. "You really can't get through." There also is an ongoing cultural shift in media relations, she said: "There's sort of been an acceptance of that's how it's done. And journalists have not done a good job of pushing back. Not enough people are talking about it."

O'Neil said at the federal level, communications are less tightly controlled now than they were in the Obama administration, but "tight control on the narrative and the message ... we're paying for that today" in perceptions there's tight control on release of information. O'Neil -- chief of media relations at the National Transportation Safety Board though speaking in his personal capacity only -- said the FCC model of operation at monthly commissioners' meetings -- taking questions from individual reporters after the meeting -- roughly follows how the NTSB operates at public meetings. He said the fundamental thing agencies can and should do to avoid any conflicts is to establish ground rules and expectations in advance: "All those particulars should be well explained, which avoids the 'let me try to catch this person on the way out.'"

Both media and government communications interests generally defended reporters trying to buttonhole FCC commissioners after the meeting -- that being the type of instigating incident that set off last week's reporter manhandling. "A government building, in a public hallway, that's not an inappropriate area to ask a question,'' particularly if a reporter is being respectful, Walsh said. O'Neil said that "you can't blame a journalist for wanting to do their job and raise questions that hadn't been raised during the meeting." When an official might not want to engage one on one, he said, "those kinds of moments are avoidable" by setting conditions beforehand.