Naturally, journalists want more from the Obama administration.
Given that the journalist’s agenda will always differ from the government’s agenda, it’s inevitable that a contentious dynamic shadows the relationship. This seems healthy to me so I wasn’t surprised to stumble across a recent letter from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) addressed to the President asking for greater transparency.
Ironically, I think the letter was more of a PR ploy and not exactly well done. Then again, it appears the organization’s version of a PR function is to hire an aspiring journalist who just graduated in May to fill the role of “communications coordinator.”
Here’s the content of the letter with my commentary:
President Barack Obama
The White House
July 8, 2014
You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.
In a form of journalistic jujitsu, the SPJ nicely turns the President’s words against him. But that last line “… take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in” brings together more clichés than a 7th grade English class.
Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship – an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.
Call The New York Times or The Washington Post or any major publication to request a meeting with the editor-in-chief, and what happens? You are quickly shuttled to the PR department who then determines whether you are “worthy.” This is how all organizations bring method to the madness. Of course, the process can be abused, but censorship? Puhleeze!
The stifling of free expression is happening despite your pledge on your first day in office to bring “a new era of openness” to federal government – and the subsequent executive orders and directives which were supposed to bring such openness about.
I suppose it’s all in how you define “openness.” As I’ve written in previous posts, the Obama administration gets “owned media,” establishing a new benchmark for how a government entity essentially becomes a media property in its own right with multiple channels to reach the masses.
Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level. Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely.
The data seems to indicate that when a journalist interviews someone from the federal government, he or she is increasingly accompanied by a PR person. Can you imagine?
When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title “spokesperson.” Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers. Agencies hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.
Now we’re getting somewhere. I completely agree with the SPJ’s position that journalists should not have to submit questions in advance. As I’ve publicly stated, this undermines the credibility of the journalist, and that hurts everybody. In fact, I’m the one who wrote an open letter to the PR community advocating for the “Just Say No to No” campaign as a way to restore the credibility of our journalistic brothers.
As for the “on-background press conference with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis,” maybe you shouldn’t attend if they’re a waste of time.
In many cases, this is clearly being done to control what information journalists – and the audience they serve – have access to. A survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote.
I couldn’t help but notice that there’s no attribution for the survey, a journalistic no no. Which causes me to wonder if this is really an issue.
Some argue that controlling media access is needed to ensure information going out is correct. But when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. This is not a “press vs. government” issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions.
“Under surveillance?” I must have missed the memo stating that somehow the NSA is involved.
It has not always been this way. In prior years, reporters walked the halls of agencies and called staff people at will. Only in the past two administrations have media access controls been tightened at most agencies. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists without surveillance. Meanwhile, agency personnel are free speak to others – lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money – without these controls and without public oversight.
Right. I’m sure the Nixon administration made journalists feel right at home, offering them an iced tea as they roamed the White House. And again, what’s this “surveillance” issue that keeps surfacing? If it refers to a PR person accompanying the federal source, I’m deeply offended. Heck, I have a tough enough time keeping an eye on my grandkids much less have the expertise to hack the mobile phone logs of a journalist.
Here are some recent examples:
• The New York Times ran a story last December on the soon-to-be implemented ICD-10 medical coding system, a massive change for the health care system that will affect the whole public. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), one of the federal agencies in charge of ICD-10, wouldn’t allow staff to talk to the reporter.
• A reporter with Investigative Post, an online news organization in New York, asked three times without success over the span of six weeks to have someone at EPA answer questions about the agency’s actions regarding the city of Buffalo’s alleged mishandling of “universal waste” and hazardous waste.
• A journalist with Reuters spent more than a month trying to get EPA’s public affairs office to approve him talking with an agency scientist about the effects of climate change. The public affairs officer did not respond to him after his initial request, nor did her supervisor, until the frustrated journalist went over their heads and contacted EPA’s chief of staff.
Always a nice touch to bring in proof points.
The undersigned organizations ask that you seek an end to this restraint on communication in federal agencies. We ask that you issue a clear directive telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so. We believe that is one of the most important things you can do for the nation now, before the policies become even more entrenched.
We also ask you provide an avenue through which any incidents of this suppression of communication may be reported and corrected. Create an ombudsman to monitor and enforce your stated goal of restoring transparency to government and giving the public the unvarnished truth about its workings. That will go a long way toward dispelling Americans’ frustration and cynicism before it further poisons our democracy.
One thing for sure, the SPJ has made a conscious effort to leverage emotionally charged words. Hello “suppression.” Still, I like the idea of an ombudsman. It could work just like the role in publications. Oh, that’s right. Most publications axed their ombudsmen during cost reductions.
While we have never supported a federal agency, our work for the City of Fremont gives us a window into how a constructive tango between the media and government should work.
Sure, the contentious dynamic I referenced earlier periodically surfaces, but again that’s the nature of colliding agendas.
PR is not the enemy.
Perhaps, you should issue a clear directive to your membership that it’s not only OK to interact with PR, but they might actually find it useful and not in conflict with the journalistic integrity of their work.