The Secret Tool the FDA Uses to Control News Reports About Its Decisions

The agency relies on "close-hold embargoes" to restrict reporters from contacting outside sources about FDA stories.


credit—Congressional Quarterly/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), apparently not satisfied with exerting a considerable and often wildly inappropriate amount of control over what people can put in their bodies, has also taken extraordinary and secretive steps to control what sorts of information people can read about the agency's decisions.

To understand how the FDA controls news about its policies, you have to understand news embargoes, in which a source agrees to provide information if reporters agree to hold the news until a specific time.

Embargoes are a widely employed and often useful part of journalism: They can help give reporters time to go over stories—especially those with complex, technical aspects—carefully, and can help ensure that critics and opinion writers don't feel pressured to rush to judgment. Embargoes, in other words, give reporters the opportunity to think, clarify, and work through a story without worrying about getting scooped. And in the process, they can help create better journalism. Or at least that's the hope.

The flip side, of course, is that embargoes can also be used by sources to control stories, at least to some extent. By forcing every outlet to agree to the same embargo, PR operators can ensure that there's a flood of stories all at once, making it seem like something—usually a product that someone is trying to sell—is suddenly everywhere in the news. Embargoes can also be used to keep negative news and reviews from leaking before a product hits the market. In at least one case I'm aware of, video game critics, in exchange for early access to a game, were forced to agree to an embargo that didn't lift until 12 hours after the game was available to buy online.

Traditionally, the limiting factor on embargoes stories is just time. But according to scathing report in Scientific American, the FDA has recently been adding another factor for sharing news with early reporters: No outside sourcing. This turns into what is called a "close-hold embargo."

The FDA initially attempted to impose a close-hold embargo in 2011, according to the story, but updated its official embargo policy to allow reporters to contact third parties following complaints by journalists. Except that apparently the FDA secretly went ahead with a close-hold embargo strategy anyway, despite its own publicly posted rules. And according to snippets from an agency memo published by Scientific American, the explicit goal is to shape and control news coverage:

The FDA, too, quietly held close-hold embargoed briefings, even though its official media policy forbids it. Without a source willing to talk, it is impossible to tell for sure when or why FDA started violating its own rules. A document from January 2014, however, describes the FDA's strategy for getting media coverage of the launch of a new public health ad campaign. It lays out a plan for the agency to host a "media briefing for select, top-tier reporters who will have a major influence on coverage and public opinion of the campaigns.… Media who attend the briefing will be instructed that there is a strict, close-hold embargo that does not allow for contact with those outside of the FDA for comment on the campaign."

Why? The document gives a glimpse: "Media coverage of the campaign is guaranteed; however, we want to ensure outlets provide quality coverage of the launch," the document explains. "The media briefing will give us an opportunity to shape the news stories, conduct embargoed interviews with the major outlets ahead of the launch and give media outlets opportunities to prepare more in-depth coverage of the campaign launch."

The FDA has apparently relied on this practice not only to control when news is published, and who reporters talk to for their stories, but which news organizations get access to information. As the Scientific American story notes, major outlets such as Fox News and National Journal sometimes didn't receive invites to pre-release press briefings at all. In one case documented in the story, an FDA spokesperson told a National Journal reporter that the agency could not confirm or speculate on the timing for the of new rules regarding e-cigarettes—despite having already scheduled a release date and set up a briefing with other news outlets. In another, an FDA spokesperson claimed not to have contacted Fox News because of a lack of a good press contact.

The FDA, for its part, doesn't like it when reporters acknowledge that close-held embargoes even exist. After The New York Times noted in a story that the FDA had provided information on the condition that they "not talk to industry or public health groups" until after the news was public, an FDA official sent the Times reporter responsible for the story an email complaining about the mention, and noting that no other outlet had shared the details of the embargo. The very fact that a close-held embargo is in place is supposed to remain secret.

The FDA is not alone in its use of close-hold embargoes. For example, early details about a 2012 paper, which was eventually retracted, claiming a connection between genetically modified foods and rat cancer, were also provided under similar rules. But the story focuses on the ways in which the FDA has used the practice, despite its official policy saying otherwise.

This whole thing is appalling, especially given that it's an arm of the federal government using it to prevent the public from seeing outside opinions on its decisions.

Unfortunately, the strategy seems to work much of the time, as the story notes that reporters from major news outlets, including all the broadcast TV networks, CNN, and the Associated Press, have participated in such embargoes, and published stories without any critical comment.

At that point, why not just become an FDA press officer? In fact, as the story notes, one former reporter for the AP did just that. When Scientific American asked for comment on the his work as a reporter, he responded: "I'm not really sure whether I'm comfortable discussing that at this point."

NEXT: Libertarian Optimism: Nick Gillespie Talks With Ben Kissel on Lincoln's Top Hat

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  1. Most transparent administration, ever.

    1. I was thinking the exact same thing.

      I’m not sure Obama knows what the word “transparent” means.

      1. He thinks it’s a gender identity.

        1. Yup! “I was a Mommy, now I am a Daddy”… Trans-Parent!

          Me? I am trans-species… Was once a humanoid, am now a SQRLSY One… Bring me some nuts!

          1. That’s why I frequent the comments here… I lust after nuts!

            Speaking of which, if anyone is expecting “Reason” journalists to get invited to FDA press conferences… Ye are nuts!

            If anyone expects the FDA (or DEA, CIA, FBI, TSA, BATF etc.) to give one hoot in Hell about the genuine public good, as opposed to their own fame and power and money… Ye are nuts!!!

      2. “transparent” as in, there’s nothing there to see at all!

  2. Speaking of controlling discussions, I haven’t been over to PNAC in a long while, so I jogged over there today. He’s got a story of a St. Louis police officer planting a gun after killing a fleeing drug suspect. Have we talked about this one here?

    The footage of the car pulling away and shots being fired looks familiar, but the exact scenario happens so many times I don’t remember if this is the same one.

    At any rate, they charged the guy with murder and said they only found the cop’s DNA on the weapon. But they declined to say that he planted the gun.

    1. Another nut punch.

      On a related topic, the copy editing at PNAC is worse than at Reason — probably non-existent.

      1. Do they not have a hyper-vigilant, anal-retentive commenter base?

        1. You forgot highly-intelligent and basement-dwelling in your description.

          1. My basement is not deep enough to dwell in, I’d keep hitting my head on the beams. So I live at ground level.

          2. Stop spying on me!

      2. Yeah, that’s why I haven’t been there in a while. They devolved into more of a crazy place than a single-issue advocacy site.

        1. Do you think it was deliberately taken over by trolling copsuckers, or just attracted legitimate crazies?

    2. a St. Louis police officer planting a gun after killing a fleeing drug suspect

      Do cops carry extra guns around with them for the purpose of planting on suspects?

      1. Some of them absolutely do.

        1. Didn’t the coo caught on video shooting a guy in the back who wasruning from him also get caught using a throwdown in the video ?

          There are so damn many I cant keep u.

      2. Its called a throwdown gun, and some do.

  3. FOIMA — Freedom of Information My Ass

    1. That’s a sub-clause of the FYTW Act.

    2. That’s a sub-clause of the FYTW Act.

      1. You just can’t win today.

      2. What exactly have you been doing to the squirrels to piss them off so much?

        1. Rubbing their nuts?

    3. FOIA — Freedom of Information… Ahhahahahahahahaa!!!!!!

  4. On a related note, there’s a FOIA exemption, 5 U.S.C. ? 552(b)(5), which intentionally makes the regulatory development process opaque. It really puts the lie to the idea that the government serves the public.

    1. Pretty much. Congress stopped doing anything even resembling their job a long, long time ago.

      Even if there wasn’t an exception they would just use off-the-books email to discuss anything they didn’t want to see the light of day, a la Clinton.

  5. This whole thing is appalling, especially given that it’s an arm of the federal government using it to prevent the public from seeing outside opinions on its decisions.

    Yeah, but it’s the FDfreakinA. Geez, do you not even know how science works, ya dumbass?

    1. I know how science works, but what they do is not science.

        1. Anything that starts with “New England” lost credibility years ago.

          1. What was the score of the pats game, I don’t have Internet.

            HT playa

  6. The FDA, for its part, doesn’t like it when reporters acknowledge that close-held embargoes even exist.

    That’s transparency for you. Everybody knows the FDA is a whore; the FDA just doesn’t like it when people say so out loud.

  7. Has Gary Johnson making an ass of himself been brought up today yet? http://www.theblaze.com/storie…..interview/

    1. I am down with the lizard tongue. I think he was hitting on the reporter, I would have.

      I can lick the alphabet in 5 languages…upper and lower case…and one of those languages is Mandarin…traditional and simplified…

      1. As usual, the tongue didn’t bother me as much as the fact that he illustratively stated that a trained monkey could get on stage between Clinton and Trump and pull even in the polls.

        1. I’m voting for that monkey!

    2. WTF?

      *bangs head on desk*

      1. I think he has smoked himself retarded.

        1. Pretty much this, every time I see him I can’t help but think he’s sampled a little bit too much of his product.

        2. Pretty much this, every time I see him I can’t help but think he’s sampled a little bit too much of his product.

        3. And smoked the LP in the process in the year of what is probably the best opportunity for a third party in decades.

          Just fucking great.

          1. Remember how having an ex-governor lead the ticket was going to lend credibility to the LP?

            Yeah, and of course Reason’s not going to report on it until they have talking points.

          2. In all fairness, ever since his slogan became ‘Feel the Johnson’ I stopped taking him at all seriously. Actually, it was probably way before that during his first run but I must have forgotten how ridiculous the guy was since then. Consider my memory jogged by Andre the Giant.

            At this point I think it’s probably a wise bet to say that voting for Johnson is a protest vote at worst, and a hope for more funding for the party next time around at best. Nothing more, nothing less.

            I really wish someone a bit more serious like Rand Paul had decided to run on the Libertarian ticket but these are the choices we have.

            1. I think Petersen in 2020 might do better.

            2. I’m running for the ticket next time, and this guy is going to be my running mate. We are sure to win.


        4. I suspect he didn’t have far to go.

    3. She looked completely repulsed by him even before he started with the tongue thing. Therefore I think that was the correct move. It’s what I do.

    4. hahahahaha

      Yet it’s a travesty, a sham, a mockery, a travishamockery, that he wasn’t allowed to make an ass of himself pushing center-left bullshit under the Libertarian brand in the debates.

    5. Maybe he got replaced with his Fallout clone.

      Yeah, that’s it. That’s the ticket.

  8. Another example of most big media having zero journalistic spirit. Most of the media doesn’t want to investigate anything anymore. They don’t want to challenge government. They do not want to be objective.

    They certainly do not want to stop cooperating with the people making the bad decisions and are therefore the actual news story.

    1. Consider that most big media outlets are extremely biased. They can’t question government when their favored patron party is in power. Look for this to change if their patrons are ousted.

      1. I tend to think it’s because most outlets find it way easier to simply publish whatever provided story a group sends them. They then do the bare minimum of internet research and maybe make a call or two to regular ‘expert’ sources for some minimal background.

        To figure out who’s actually writing the vast majority of stories, you would want to look at the Public Relations Department of whomever the story in question is about. Why write a story yourself, with all that research and walking around, when you can just republish what a group wants to say about themselves?

  9. This is just another aspect of why Dan Rather stated that journalism died once news outlets became for-profit (paraphrasing). All of MSM is in a race to the bottom trying to protect their revenue streams.

    1. … News outlets were always for-profit. It just used to be that they made the most buck by getting the information before their compeditors did.

    2. Please enlighten us as to how profits are to blame for this. Also, please explain why NPR reporters have no problem going along with these embargoes, as explained in the story.

      1. NPR receives money from the government. I know it’s not much, but the threat of pulling that money always keeps them in line.

        If the Dems/Reps were really clever, they’d subsidize other media outlets and use threats of pulling the subsidies to keep them in line.

      2. NPR receives subsidies from the government and threats to pull those subsidies have worked well to keep NPR in line.

        If the institutional duopoly were clever, they’d provide subsidies to other media outlets, get them addicted to the cash, and threaten to pull them when they fall out of line.

      3. Gah, made a comment and it didn’t show up? so made another comment and the first comment appeared.

        The squirrels are up to something?

    3. Um…newspapers were always profit-making enterprises. Or are you specifically referring to the news divisions of the major broadcast networks?

  10. News: the fucking emptiest drug of them all and even the most beet-faced turgid prohibitionist-styled character abandons all fucking rationality in their hunt for daily goddamn revelation hits siphoned from the bubbling cauldrons of myriad surfaces, screens, and screeds.

    Listless skulls are drawn to the flame of letters. Too much fucking immersion in the scrivener stew makes one a goddamn creation of shadows.

  11. Johnson narrows Overton window:

    “…During a debate at May’s Libertarian convention, Johnson was the only candidate of five to raise his hand when asked who supported the Civil Rights Act and the concept of driver’s licenses. He has come out against “religious-freedom” bills that he’s said would legalize anti-gay discrimination. Johnson told me he was against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (“I don’t believe corporations are people”) and for a revenue-neutral carbon tax to combat climate change (though he would later reverse himself…). There had also been an eye-opening moment on the streets of Cleveland during the Republican National Convention, when we’d been walking behind a cigarette-wielding Ohioan. As the smoker’s exhaust wafted in our faces, I remarked offhand that?with the advent of e-cigarettes?I thought there was a good libertarian case for banning regular cigarettes. “I do too,” replied the health-obsessed triathlete, recounting his support for anti-smoking efforts in New Mexico. Johnson’s views on other issues, meanwhile, betray a basic centrism?against affirmative action but supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, philosophically in favor of the death penalty but against its use in practice, pro-Second Amendment but open to legislation to keep guns from suspected terrorists and the mentally ill.”

  12. You linked to a Reason article through a Google search result (on the “wildly inappropriate” text).

    What a dork.

    1. Sick burn, bro.

      1. Just a small jab at the author for being a dork, not really a burn.

        But since you had to get all sarcastic about it, get bent, Chicken McFuckwit.

        1. Haha. Good one.

  13. Most wildly (in)appropriate text in a political news item – “Johnson remains firm….”, “Trump dumps….”, or “Hillary’s taint….” ? (“Stein weighs…” is just mildly amusing.)

  14. “Embargoes, in other words, give reporters the opportunity to think, clarify, and work through a story”

    And yet, they still can’t seem to get simple facts and logic correct.

    1. Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

      Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

      In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

      -Michael Crichton, Why Speculate?, April 26, 2002.

      1. And Samuel Taylor Coleridge spins in his grave.

        1. There are a lot of people from Porlock out there these days…

  15. “Embargoes are a widely employed and often useful part of journalism”

    This is a stupid assertion with no basis in reality.

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  17. RE: The Secret Tool the FDA Uses to Control News Reports About Its Decisions
    The agency relies on “close-hold embargoes” to restrict reporters from contacting outside sources about FDA stories.

    We all know the FDA (and other State agencies) restrict information for the good of the collective. One can only speculate on what horrible information that may be leaked out to the little people for their information and review. One can only imagine the riots in the streets if the FDA shared its information regarding cancer treating drugs, a possible cure for AIDS, MS, MD, or any other possible cures. People from all over the country would descend on our nations’s capital and demand answers to their many questions. How horrible that would be, making a State agency answerable for their findings. I mean, what next? Have our ruling elitist masters be answerable for their actions?
    The very idea!

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  19. Just so I’m clear, it’s this short of shit we’re not supposed to “burn-down” or be “non-libertarian”?

  20. “as the story notes that reporters from major news outlets, including all the broadcast TV networks, CNN, and the Associated Press, have participated in such embargoes,”
    Minor detail; checking with multiple (verifiable?) sources and confirming facts is what defines reporters, right?
    ergo, ipso facto, henceforth thereunto, and all that other lawyer crap, those are not reporters. Nor is what they regurgitate for the feds news.

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