Scientific American Calls Out FDA’s Media Malfeasance

The Food and Drug Administration uses a system of close-hold news embargoes and “Faustian bargains” to control when and how major media outlets report on the agency’s rulings and other activities, according to a recent article in the venerable Scientific American magazine.

EmbargoedIn his article titled, “How the FDA Manipulates the Media,” author Charles Seife describes how FDA press agents offer selected media outlets like CNN, CBS, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times exclusive access to hot stories on the condition that their reporters ONLY speak to FDA-vetted sources.

Scientific American obtained documents via the Freedom of Information Act that Seife says,“paint a disturbing picture of the tactics that are used to control the science press.”

Embargoes designed to regulate the timing of news stories are widespread throughout the media world, and have been for decades. Corporations use them, as do academic institutions, trade organizations, scientific journals, and government agencies.

Tacit Acceptance

In the simplest terms, the issuing party offers journalists “sneak peak” access to important news on condition that they agree not to publish the information before a certain date.

These so-called “close-hold” embargoes are the norm in the publishing world, and while some people have questioned the ethics of the practice, and many institutions—including the FDA have lip-service policies condemning it—there’s been a longstanding tacit acceptance of publication-date embargoes between journalists and news sources. Few media companies or media watchdogs have challenged it in any meaningful way.

Companies, agencies and institutions also use embargoes to channel news into certain media outlets to the exclusion of others. A news source simply offers advance information to handful of its preferred media companies, to the exclusion of others, thus giving the preferred outlet(s) the much coveted “exclusive” story.

The Scientific American article contends that the FDA has added a new dimension to the embargo process by offering preferred information access only to journalists who agree, beforehand, that they will not seek comment from anyone outside the agency’s chosen list of experts for a set period of time.

If a reporter breaks the agreement, the FDA simply threatens to exclude the offender from its official pool of insiders.

In effect, this lets the FDA control not only the timing of a story but also the way it is spun. By getting reporters to limit their inquiries, the agency can assure that news coverage will reflect the views of its experts and the agency’s stated—or unstated—intentions.

Siefe holds that use of embargoes of all shapes and stripes is on the rise not only by the FDA or other federal agencies, but by corporate and academic interests as well.


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