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Utahn debates roles of government spokesmen at National Press Club event

Published September 4, 2013 1:35 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, recently participated in a debate over censorship by government public information officers.

The event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. this past month addressed the issue of government spokespeople limiting reporters' access to officials at agencies, monitoring interviews and even banning reporters from speaking to certain agencies.

While much of the discussion focused on spokespeople at federal agencies, Petersen pointed out that the mindset that public-information officers need to "control" reporters extends far beyond the D.C. Beltway. Petersen, who is the managing editor of the Valley Journals, sees it in the Salt Lake Valley communities her papers cover.

Petersen said her papers have been forced to go through spokespeople to get information on road projects, and even had the city's spokesman sit in on an interview with the engineer. In another case, Petersen said she almost published the wrong time for an Easter Egg hunt because a city recreation official said he was barred from speaking to reporters.

"Nobody ever voted for a PAO [Public Affairs Officer]," Petersen said. "No PAO, as yet, has a formal vote on city, state or federal business – so why does government think the public should be fine hearing from them all the time, instead of the people they elected?"