U.S. Censorship Bid is Textbook PR Manipulation

The U.S. Government's campaign to prevent its own scientists from speaking about climate change has all the earmarks of a professional Public Relations effort to control the flow of information.

According to the above-linked story in the Sunday New York Times, NASA's media managers have been demanding an advance look at any lectures, papers, website postings and requests for interviews that go to James E. Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen had earned this special attention by speaking the truth about climate change - a truth that clashes inconveniently with the current U.S. position that climate change is either not real or not a problem serious enough to demand an firm action by the Bush Administration.

In explaining the pre-emptive interest in Hansen's output, Dean Acosta, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the space agency, denied that anyone was trying to silence Hansen. “That's not the way we operate here at NASA,” Acosta said. “We promote openness and we speak with the facts.”

He said the restrictions on Hansen applied to all National Aeronautics and Space Administration personnel and were only designed to ensure the orderly flow of information out of the sprawling space agency. “This is not about any individual or any issue like global warming,” he said. “It's about coordination.”

This is, first of all, not true - to the extent that it is a change in what has traditionally been government policy, and a change apparently driven by the widening gulf between this administration and its best scientists on the issue of climate change (see the excelent Ross Gelbspan post on this topic below).

More pointedly, this clampdown demonstrates the kind of professional spin that the administration is bringing to this topic. “Coordinating” the flow of information is often an urgent goal for a corporation that is in the midst of a PR crisis, or even for one that is dealing with sensitive information. It makes perfect sense in the private sector to monitor what is being said by people within your company, and also to check what is being said about your company by others. You want to stay abreast of the news so you can react quickly to information that is incorrect or that might be damaging if taken out of context. And, yes, on occasion, you want to make sure you have the opportunity to offer your own interpretation of information that might not appear to be in your favour.

It's one thing for a private-sector corporation to make such an attempt to establish an orderly flow of information. It's quite another when the most powerful government in the world begins to “coordinate” its own scientists - especially when they are speaking in a way that upsets the administration's energy industry backers.

Government is supposed to be responsible for the public interest - and surely it is in the interest of the public that the best informed scientists on the planet share their knowledge, clearly - and when necessary, urgently. If the scientists are saying something that is implicitly critical of current government policy, that might well be a reason to reconsider policy. It should not, in a democracy, be an occasion on which to get out the gags and the black felt markers.