One of the most interesting stories to follow as the Trump administration’s policies continue to shape up is the type of coverage they’re being given by the media.
For environmental, natural health and clean food advocates, Trump’s early decisions have been a mixed bag, ranging from the good (officially withdrawing from the TPP) to the bad (appointing pro-Big Ag reps), as well as the ugly (his support for the Dakota Access Pipeline).
Recently two specific Trump decisions have made national headlines, but the reasons behind them are still unclear to many.
Trump Administration Issues Gag Orders
According to various reports, including this one from The Washington Post, employees of the research arm of the U.S. Agriculture Department were ordered on Monday to stop the publication of any “outward facing” documents and news releases. The ARS responded saying it had not “blacked out public information” and that peer-reviewed research from professional journals had not been banned.
The original message to the ARS was brief and vague, as written by the organization’s head Sharon Drumm via email to her employees, the Post reported: “Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,”
Meanwhile another department-wide memo went out on the same day from the USDA that partially contradicted the aforementioned one.
The memo was issued on behalf of Michael Young and was issued in order to provide guidance until a new secretary takes over the USDA. On Tuesday Young said that the order does not place a blanket freeze on press releases, prohibit food safety announcements, or place a gag order on scientific journals, according to the Post.
“The ARS guidance was not reviewed by me. I would not have put that kind of guidance out. My guidance has to do with policy-related announcement and that sort of thing,” Young said during a phone call with reporters on Tuesday according to the article. “I had my memo drafted before the ARS memo, I was not a part of it.”
The Post reported that press release and policy statements must be approved by the secretary first. He added that the memo he issued was similar to one sent at the beginning of the Obama administration and hinted that perhaps the situation had been blown out of proportion.
“This is really just formalizing again what is fairly standard practice within the department. I just felt like, yeah, I want to be cautious because I don’t want any surprises on my watch. I was trying to avoid any surprises,” he said.
In total the ARS has a $1 billion budget and its goal is to “develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority,” the Post report noted. Food safety, nutrition, animal and crop production and sustainability are all among their focuses.
The ARS also released the following statement to the Post.
“As the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America.”
Currently, the USDA does not have a permanent department head. Trump’s appointment of former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to that position (Secretary of Agriculture) was made recently, however. But Perdue, who has a history of taking political donations from Monsanto and big agrochemical corporations, has not yet begun the confirmation process.
EPA Also Involved in Information Freeze
The “gag orders” also spread to the EPA, as it has been reported that Trump has banned EPA employees from updating their social media accounts or providing information to reporters, as well as from awarding new contracts or grants (see more in this article).
As of the writing of this blog the EPA’s last Twitter post had been made on January 19, confirming the halt of new posts.
So, what does it all mean for the future of these organizations and their ability to be transparent with the public going forward? Dina Fine Maron of the website Scientific American weighed in, offering up the following comments:
“The administration’s latest actions resemble steps taken in Canada by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper while in office from 2006 to 2015; his administration blocked government scientists from speaking with media and explaining their research. Several weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Canadian scientists interviewed by Scientific Americanwarned their U.S. counterparts about the threat of similar restrictions…
“There was a feeling that the government was not interested in expert opinion, and I think it’s the same kind of thing that you are probably going to see with the new [Trump] administration” in the U.S., David Tarasick, a senior research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada (the equivalent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), said last month.
She added that George W. Bush was also noted as limiting access for federal scientists to the public, and Barack Obama’s pledge for more transparency did not quite live up to its lofty goals.
Considering that both the USDA and EPA are rife with conflicts-of-interest from massive corporations including agrochemical “science,” the changes presented by the Trump administration in regards to these organizations’ scientific standards are well worth following going forward.