What Trump’s media blackout means to you

Published 12:58 am Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Last week, on the eve of the inauguration of the nation’s 45th president, the USDA Forest Service issued a press release outlining plans for controlled burns.

But for a few sentences, it could have been the exact same press release issued about this time last year.

“USDA Forest Service federal fire specialists will intentionally conduct controlled burns on approximately 91,500 acres of the Bankhead, Conecuh, Talladega and Tuskegee National Forests during the next six months ….”

Twenty thousand acres will be burned in the Conecuh Forest in Covington and Escambia counties.

The accompanying email suggested that journalists call the service office of any of those national forests for more information.

What normally happens next is that someone from the newspaper leaves a message in the district office of the Conecuh, and someone – usually District Ranger Tim Mersmann – calls back with some details, like when area residents should expect to see smoke, and where in the forest controlled burns will begin.

But these are not normal times. Two full work days in to the new administration, employees at multiple federal agencies have been instructed to cease communicating with the public through news releases, official social media accounts and correspondence. The Environmental Protection Agency as well as Agriculture (which oversees the Forestry Service) and Interior departments now have formal policies restricting communications.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that USDA employees (including forestry) received a memo instructing them that all media communications must go through the secretary’s office.

“In order for the Department to deliver unified, consistent messages, it’s important for the Office of the Secretary to be consulted on media inquiries and proposed responses to questions related to legislation, budgets, policy issues, and regulations,” the memo reads. “Policy-related statements should not be made to the press without notifying and consulting the Office of the Secretary. This includes press releases and on and off the record conversations.”

Hopefully, saner heads will prevail and administration officials will realize that it has dialed back control of communications too far. For the immediate future, this new policy means local forestry officials can’t tell us when they’ll be burning.

But even more concerning is that both the Agriculture Department and EPA have been told they cannot share their research. That’s research that we taxpayers funded, and which could affect our lives.

That, in our opinion, is overreaching.