The Department of Commerce has issued a blanket media policy to employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), requiring that all requests for contact from national media be first approved by the Department, RAW STORY has learned.
According to a leaked Sept. 29 email memo sent out to NOAA staff, including employees of the National Weather Service (NWS) -- both of which are under the Department of Commerce -- employees must collect information from reporters and forward it to the Department.
-The name of the reporter and their affiliation
-Their deadline and contact phone number
-The name of the individual being requested to give the interview
-The purpose of the interview
-The expertise of the requested interviewee on this subject.
“Prior to this policy change, if a media organization called our office (or any other National Weather Service office) and wanted an interview, we would do our best to accommodate the request as quickly as possible,” said one NOAA employee who requested anonymity. “While often such requests are from local media, local offices do get requests from national media if a weather event is big enough to be a national story.”
The policy requires that local weather offices forward media requests to the NWS press office, who in turn would forward the request on to the Commerce Department’s public relations office. The Department would then decide whether comment should be granted.
Under this new policy, the Department, rather than the weather agencies, would also determine who would then provide comment.
“There has been no explanation as to why this policy was issued. It does appear the intent of this policy is to restrict the flow of weather information to the national media,” said the NOAA employee who also expressed concern over why Commerce is suddenly making blanket policy decisions for the NWS and deciding who can speak to the media.
Confusion over policy
NOAA’s public affairs director and the author of the recent memo say the policy has long been in place. Employees who spoke to RAW STORY, however, said they had never heard of such restrictions being in force before the memo was sent out last week.
NWS Regional Public Affairs Director Jim Teet -- who sent the policy email memo -- said the latest policy is merely a way to coordinate the message.
“I do not set the policies,” Teet said. “All I was doing was passing it along. It's a coordination policy to make sure the most qualified people speak to an issue.”
NOAA Public Affairs Director Jordan St. John said “the policy has been in existence all along,” adding that he rewrote it in June 2004 with “several others,” including lawyers and Commerce Department policymakers.
St. John asserts the media policy was simply “updated” and is not a mandatory directive. Rather, he says it is a set of guidelines to ensure that weather service employees report back to him “when they’ve spoken to someone.”
He added that Mr. Teet is “new on the job and issued the [directive] just as an email reminder.”
While Teet is new to NOAA’s press office, starting in June of this year, he is not new to the PR field, having served as Community Relations Chief and External Relations Chief at Laughlin Air Force Base directly prior to joining NOAA.
Teet provided support in 1999 for spokeswoman Karen Hughes’ defense of then Governor George W. Bush’s National Guard record, claiming that training constituted “active duty.”
Some National Weather Service staff expressed surprise when RAW STORY recounted the media policy St. John articulated. Some employees stated that they had never seen the original media policy before, and find the timing of the reminder from Teet to be suspect given the recent political impact of hurricane Katrina.
“I have been worked for NOAA for roughly 15 years,” said a NOAA employee speaking of both the Department media policy and the Teet email. “ There has never been a blanket policy of needing approval before granting an interview with a national media outlet.”
Another NOAA employee, also wishing to remain anonymous, concurred.
“This is a big change in our policy with the media,” he said. “This comes all the way down from DOC,” he added, indicating that such media decisions were formerly made at the local level.
St. John provided RAW STORY with both the original and his updated 2004 version of the Department’s media policy. He said employees were aware of it.
The policy St. John provided differs from Teet’s recent email reminder of media restrictions. For example, the emailed policy states that routine contact with national media outlets has to be pre-cleared with the Commerce Department, requiring extensive information about the journalist and media outlet.
The media policy St. John provided does not stipulate such restrictions on interacting with national media. Nor does it state that the Commerce Department must approve media requests.
Instead, the policy focuses on certain types of media interactions, including press conferences, news features and technical papers. These types of media requests simply require that a NOAA/NWS employee notify the NOAA Public Affairs office either prior to or after the media interaction.
Weather Service employees of NWS wonder why they were never told of the original policy. More importantly to some employees, they wonder why Commerce has to approve weather media requests.
I have been informed that any request for an interview
with a national media outlet/reporter must now receive
prior approval by DOC. Please ensure everyone on your
staff is aware of this requirement.
Any request for an interview requires the following
information to be forwarded to me immediately, so this
process may begin:
The name of the reporter and their affiliation;
Their deadline and contact phone number;
Name of individual being requested for the interview
and purpose of the interview;
Additional background about the interview subject, and
expertise of requested interviewee on this subject.
The request will be forwarded through NWS/NOAA to DOC;
however, the individual to be interviewed ultimately
will be determined by DOC.
If any requests for an update concerning the interview
are received from the media, refer the individual to
me for a response via my cell phone: (XXX) XXX-3516.