Why Were Top HHS Officials’ Interviews Thwarted by Their Press Offices?

... National Cancer Institute (NCI)... still has some explaining to do... Photo: Aerial photograph from the north of the Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center (Building 10) on the National Institutes of Health Bethesda, Maryland campus.

What happens when senior government health officials personally agree to be interviewed by a journalist and then their respective press offices continue to play delaying games with the actual scheduling?

The original planned informational articles can change focus from sharing insights into important research initiatives to exposing seemingly obstructionist and controlling public relations operations that seek to cherry pick what stories they want done and even go so far as to suggest that the journalist write the story for a different publication that is more well-known.

I’ve been involved in cancer communications for more than three decades, both as the public affairs director who founded the NCI-Designated Cancer Centers Public Affairs Network in 1990, and as a journalist covering issues, controversies and trends in oncology since 1998 for various outlets including Onco’Zine, MedPage Today, Oncology Times, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the nationally syndicated Group Room cancer-talk radio program and The Onco’Zine Brief on PRX, I also have written and co-authored opinion pieces on cancer-related issues for The Hill.

During that time I had written about former National Cancer Institute (NCI) directors’ administrations that had continuously stonewalled press inquiries. I’ve even discussed those practices with some of those former directors after they left office, with the directors confirming obstruction, which they also claimed was the doing of their press officers.

So I was especially surprised when promised interviews with NCI Director Ned Sharpless, MD, and newly appointed U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Principal Deputy Director Amy Abernethy, MD, PhD, were stalled indefinitely by their respective press operations.

I’ve interviewed Abernethy numerous times over the years about her ever-evolving career to further big data initiatives in oncology [1][2], and when her FDA appointment was announced in December she agreed to the interview once she arrived at FDA in February and had gone through its vetting process.

In March 2018 I interviewed NCI director Ned Sharpless, MD, for MedPage Today about his plans for the cancer institute, and he noted how much he did not know about NCI during his years as a cancer center director (at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center) and researcher until his appointment as director. (For the record, that interview was delayed by NCI for 5 weeks.)

I said at that time that I’d like to follow up with him in the future with a story that would share with the cancer community what he had learned so that researchers and institutions could become more aware of some of these less-familiar NCI resources, and Sharpless agreed to a future interview.

Then this past December when I was covering the American Society for Hematology annual meeting in San Diego, CA, as editor-at-large for Onco’Zine, Sharpless and I again discussed setting up an interview for the story, and he said that I should discuss scheduling with Shannon Hatch, NCI’s branch chief, media relations, Office of Communications and Public Liaison, who was also at ASH. Later that day we met and Hatch said that I should follow up with her or press officer James Alexander after the holidays about confirming a date.

So I called in January and was told by Alexander that he would put in a request for a time with the director’s office. Not hearing back with a scheduled date, I called Alexander periodically throughout the month as well as in February, and was asked at the end of February if I could schedule a time at the upcoming American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting in April in Atlanta, GA.

I initially said I’d prefer to speak with Sharpless prior to the meeting because of all the news that would be generated from AACR itself—and I had already been waiting several months—but then said that if there were no other available time, then AACR would be fine.

Alexander then told me that he had just learned that Sharpless would only be at the conference for a short time, but asked if I would consider writing the story for MedPage Today rather than Onco’Zine. He also asked if I could wait until after AACR.

Somewhat taken aback by what I thought was an outrageous request, I noted that as an independent journalist with a confirmed assignment from Onco’Zine I did not consider it ethical to change publications to suit NCI’s preferences. Alexander then said that it was just a suggestion from others in the press office.

I added that unless I had a confirmed date and time in April now, I would not wait because I suspected I would be stalled again. Alexander did not dispute that claim.

I’ve known Alexander for years and was aware that he was delivering someone else’s message and told him that I wanted to speak with Hatch or another official who was responsible for making these decisions. I had also previously left phone messages for Hatch that had been passed on to Alexander.

The focus of my story had now changed, I said, and I asked that Hatch call me later that day (March 1st) for an on-the-record discussion about what was going on.

I’m still waiting for her call.

As for Abernethy, after keeping in touch with her for several months, she emailed me on Feb. 27 that I should send her an email formally requesting the interview so she could forward it to the FDA’s press office.

The following emails were exchanged during the next few hours:

Hi Amy—

As we’ve discussed I’d like to interview you about your new role at the FDA for Onco’Zine. I’ve been reporting on your career changes and the evolution of big data for cancer during the past several years and want to provide readers with more background about how your experience and expertise will help FDA’s mission.

I’ll need about one hour for a telephone interview, and would very much like to speak with you no later than March 12 if possible.

Please let me know when you’ll be available and I’m looking forward to speaking with you very soon,

Thank you.
Regards,
Eric

And the follow-up:

Hi Eric,

Thank you. By way of this email, I am cc’ing Jen Rodriguez and Lauren Roth, who can review the request and provide advice about what is possible.

Thanks for all you do.
Amy

[Note: Rodriguez is FDA’s assistant commissioner of media affairs, and Roth is senior advisor to FDA’s chief of staff.)

Hi Eric,

Thanks so much for your interest. At this time, we aren’t able to offer an interview. We hope you’ll reach back out if you have interest in interviewing Dr. Abernethy or other FDA representatives for your stories in the future.

Best,
Jen

Hi Jen—

If you cannot offer an interview at this time, can you please let me know when Amy will be available?

Thank you.
Eric

Hi Eric,

We will certainly keep your interest in mind in the future.

Thanks,
Jen

Hi Jen—

Should I contact you again in April? Will you contact me?

Eric

Hi Eric,

You are most welcome to follow up with me in April to see what might be possible.

Best,
Jen

No reason was given for the delay by Rodriguez and once again, as with NCI, the request was deferred to a future month—in this case to “see what might be possible.”

When I decided to include FDA’s seemingly thwarting behavior in the NCI story, I sent Abernethy a “heads-up” message about my intentions. She wrote back that she appreciated my letting her know and then that Saturday night I received a phone call from Rodriguez, who is FDA’s chief media officer.

She explained that Abernethy had just recently joined FDA and that the press office was not authorizing any press interviews with her for the time being. She apologized for the miscommunication and welcomed me to contact her directly in April to see whether interviews were being permitted. It was refreshing to have a senior communications official reach out to explain an action. We’ll see what happens in April.

From my point of view, governmental agencies should be accountable for what may seem to be arbitrary decision making, and should stop their games and get back to the business of transparency and sharing information with the public when requested by the news media.

They are supposed to be public information vehicles, not calculating PR machines, and FDA’s follow up was much appreciated.

However, NCI still has some explaining to do.

References
[1] Rosenthal ET. Taking Oncology ‘Big Data’ to Next Level. MedpageToday 2014.7.14 [Article]
[2] Rosenthal ET. Why Academia Wasn’t Ready to Build Big Data Systems. ADC Review | J. Antibody-drug Conjugates. 2018.04.12. [Article]


Last Editorial Review: March 5, 2019

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