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16Jan 2014

WV water contamination: CDC director boots reporter to the press office.

Paul Raeburn

Tom Frieden, M.D., MPH (yes, his official bio says "Tom") was appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June, 2009. His bio says his top three priorities are (1) fighting global disease threats; (2) reducing the incidence of smoking, inactivity, diabetes, hypertension, and others; and this one (3):

Strengthening public health & health care collaboration - by aligning, coordinating and integrating public health and health care to improve health outcomes.

Last Thursday, up to 7,500 gallons of a chemical compound called MCHM spilled into the Elk River in West Virginia, forcing a shutdown of the drinking water supply for 300,000 people, in what The New York Times called "a sweeping health and economic emergency in the state capital." The restrictions are gradually being lifted, but the crisis isn't over. The CDC on Wednesday told the state health department that "'out of an abundance of caution,' pregnant women should not drink the water until the chemical is at 'non-detectable levels.'"

Reporters at the Charleston Gazette understandably wanted to ask the CDC about this warning and about exactly what is known concerning the toxicity of MCHM. Ken Ward Jr., one of the reporters covering the crisis, listed his questions for the CDC on his Facebook page:

But he and a colleague, David Gutman, could not break through the CDC's iron wall. They got no response. So they tracked down Frieden's number and called him at home.

And here's what happened:

Just to be sure we all understand what's going on here: One of the nation's top public health officials was unwilling to speak to reporters covering an ongoing health crisis. He wasn't even willing to direct them to a person at CDC who was qualified to respond to their questions.

What was it Frieden had said about his top priorities? Oh, yes: "Strengthening public health & health care collaboration - by aligning, coordinating and integrating public health and health care to improve health outcomes."

So much for collaboration.

-Paul Raeburn




Thanks Paul - and others. This additional context helps. I wanted to assume that the proper protocol was followed from the very beginning, but we all know where assuming gets us. I appreciate the follow up.


Looks like the CDC's back into not-answering-questions mode:

Kirk - The Ward/Gutman story, to which Paul links, notes that the CDC press office had failed to answer the reporters' questions, both by phone and email, for at least two days prior to Gutman calling Frieden at home. By the second day, they just weren't returning calls at all. I recognize that's par for the course in combative "gotcha" journalism, but this wasn't that. This was a critical, time-sensitive public health question.

Completely unacceptable. A policy that directs all press inquiries to a press office that doesn't answer them, in a situation like this, is a deeply flawed policy.


The reporters did say they'd been stonewalled for days. I take that to mean that they'd tried the usual means of getting a response from the CDC. Among medical reporters, the CDC is known for being extremely difficult to work with. The scientists there are wonderful to talk to--if you can get to them through the unyielding media relations office.

Almost every public organization I have worked for has had a policy like this - or some variation of it.  Additionally, posting important questions to a Facebook page is never the most effective way to get answers.  Maybe a phone call to the press office at the onset would have worked best.  I also would like to know if the reporter called the press office after being referred there by the director. If so, what happened?  Was there a response? Were the questions answered?  This is relevant information that's missing from this piece. 

It's easy to be critical, and I think we can all recognize that large public organizations make mistakes from time to time. However, this blog post makes it seem as if the reporter took the lazy way out - and then chose to blame the process he decided not to follow in the first place. 


I believe that directing all press inquiries to the CDC press office has been policy for many years.

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