'Next Question Please'

Investigators and miners gather Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006 near the entrance to the mine where 12 people were killed in an explosion in Tallmansville, W. Va. The nation's deadliest coal mining accident in more than four years began with an explosion 260 feet underground early Monday that federal investigators have yet to explain. (AP Photo/Bob Bird)
CBS News producer Ward Sloane files this Reporter's Notebook from Washington as he makes a frustrated effort to glean facts from government agency teleconferences.

Today, if you wanted to find out how the Bush administration's investigation into the coal mining accident in West Virginia was going, you had to punch into a teleconference briefing by 3 p.m. To get the latest on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed new mileage stickers for cars and trucks, the conference call started at 4:30 p.m.

These are professionally run telephone conference calls, with real operators who actually run the call. After 10 minutes of Muzak, the operator informs you that you must register your name and news organization. Then, the voice says, "To ask a question, please press *1. To un-ask (sic) a question, please press *2. Please, only one question per caller. Please standby. Thank you for your patience."

More Muzak.

After another few minutes, the perky press hack comes on the line and announces the "participants" in the teleconference call. This takes another five minutes. And then the final instruction: "Please, only one question per caller."

They stick to this. After they feel the question has been answered, the hack moves on, "Next question please."

At the end of the day, you've spent over an hour on the phone, literally listening to faceless bureaucrats. It was hard to tell, for instance, if the EPA administrator actually delivered his remarks live or had pre-recorded them.

This allows the government to easily give out stock answers and not answer questions they don't want to address. As a reporter, you have no feel for the government official because you can't see him or her. They could just be sitting there, yawning. Why not, they're not actually giving out any news.

It is all very sterile. Like stainless steel polished with Comet: it's clean, but it just doesn't feel right.

The Mining Safety and Health Administration cost me 30 minutes and yielded no facts. They haven't been in the mine, they don't know when they'll get in the mine, they don't want to speculate, they don't have any theories and they don't know what happened. Next.

Over at EPA, well, actually, its not "over" anywhere because I'm still at my desk and don't actually go anywhere. But the administrator says it is all good news because the new stickers will now tell us by how much the government was misleading us with the old stickers. It's been well known that the EPA numbers were fixed for years.

For the next government announcement, please press 4. Thank you for your patience.