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Defending Obamacare with 'a Soviet-Style Power-Grab’

Can the White House get away with transparently political attempts to silence the press?

1:30 PM, Sep 28, 2011 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) new media policy rightfully has journalists up in arms:

The Department of Health and Human Services’ just-released media policy makes it official that staff members and reporters are forbidden to speak to each other without reporting to public information officers and supervisors. The rules have “formalized a creeping information-control mechanism that informally began during the Clinton Administration and was accelerated by the Bush and Obama administrations,” writes FDA Webview & FDA Review editor Jim Dickinson. “The U.S. now takes a large step toward joining other information-controlling countries like my native Australia, where government employees who talk with the news media without permission commit a federal crime. I came to the U.S. in 1974 to escape this oppression.”

Poynter goes on to print Dickinson's letter in full, where he describes HHS' new policy as a '‘Soviet-style power-grab." It's bad enough that America is devolving into an onerous regulatory state, but impeding those who report on federal agencies and the rules they make is inexcusable. It's hard to conjure a rationale for this that isn't wholly political, given the unending stream of unflattering reports about the impact of Obamacare as HHS struggles to implement it.

And the Obama administration has a disturbing track record of unjustifiable press restrictions. Things were particularly bad during the gulf oil spill:

Media outlets such as The New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review, and NPR have written damning reports of the government's unreasonable attempts to limit access to the spill. The New Orleans Times-Picayune was prohibited from flying a plane over the spill so a photographer could get pictures. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was denied permission to take a boat out to the spill with reporters and examine the catastrophe affecting his state. The Associated Press sent a letter of protest with the White House over the arbitrary restrictions. A CBS camera crew was threatened with arrest for trying to report from a beach affected by the spill.

In response to these media restrictions, Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., introduced an amendment requiring that federal officials "allow free and open access to the media of oil spill clean up activity occurring on public lands or public shorelines, including the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill." Democrats, then still in control of Congress, wouldn't allow a vote on Broun's amendment. And while federal officials were busy squelching reports on the oil spill, the White House was sending a "2012 rescue team" to Florida to try and deal with any political fallout that might hurt the president.

Between the new HHS rules and the gulf oil spill, the White House has twice imposed draconian press restrictions that are transparently designed to help the president's reelection effort. It's nice to see the editor of FDA Review speaking out against the latest media crackdown, but that's not enough. The national media spoke out strongly during the gulf oil spill, and this latest media policy deserves equally severe condemnation.

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