Home > Uncategorized > It’s Time to Name Names

It’s Time to Name Names

-first posted at RTDNA.org on October 27, 2009

Thirty years ago, when I was a student reporter here in Columbia, I can remember how easy it was to reach just about any government official I wanted. Even the governor himself was an easy get on just a moment’s notice.  All it usually took was a call to his secretary and within the hour, the governor would have me in for an interview. I can even recall one time on a particularly tight deadline, I actually knocked on the governor’s office door facing into the Capitol rotunda.  About a minute later, the face of Joe Teasdale himself cracked the door and asked what I wanted.  I asked to shoot a quick sound bite and Teasdale stepped out into the hallway to face my CP-16.

Boy, how times have changed. PR flacks stand in for government officials at every turn. It’s not just the governor who’s hard to get.  Middle-level bureaucrats often can’t find the time for my reporters, sending instead a 22-year-old “communications director” to answer their questions. And as if that isn’t enough, those same bureaucrats restrict any other employees from ever speaking to the media. So not only are we cut off from those in charge, we’re also stonewalled from the people who might be able to question policy or blow the whistle for us.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here when I write that this is bad.  When Thomas Jefferson championed a free press to the other founding fathers, he could not have seen this artificial barrier that would rise between people of power and the media to whom they must answer. It’s clear to me that this layer of insulation does not aid the effectiveness of government, but instead shields those in power from the prying eyes of the press and the public. The same technique is rampant in the private sector, shielding corporate barons from questioning reporters. That is just as wrong as in the public sector, but this blog will focus on our rights as citizens and reporters to speak directly to our elected and appointed representatives.

Working with young reporters as I do, I see another wrinkle. While the use of “spokespeople” and “communications directors” has risen dramatically in recent years, so too has the reluctance of our millennial reporters to raise a real stink about the abuses they receive at the hands of PR flacks. A millennial tends to respect those in positions of apparent power, even if they deserve no respect at all. So when the spokesman for the head of the state parks department says he’s too busy to talk and no one else in the department is allowed to speak, the millennial reporter accepts that as fact. Beyond just the acceptance, there’s no indignation or anger over this abuse. The way young reporters simply accept this as fact doubles the problem that already exists.

So what can we do about it?  There have always been a few things I’ve tried to put public officials in their place. For instance, I don’t typically believe private people should be the subject of ambush interviews. While I think every person should be given the right to speak on his or her behalf, I don’t think private people should be forced to do an interview they don’t want to do. You might see that as an awfully conservative point of view, but it actually makes sense. Private people — even those accused of breaking the law — have the right not to talk to reporters. If they exercise that right, they may regret the outcome. But I believe they still retain that right.  But I have never thought that was the case for public officials. Every public official accepts the responsibility of talking to the media when accepting the public post. To me, that has always meant that the only person we’ll eer do an ambush interview on is a public official. I recall, while working in Florida and before I was a manager, the reporter I often worked with felt the same way. I even remember standing blocking the only exit door to a men’s room in Orlando in 1982 in order to be sure that we got an interview with the head of the FAA.  It worked.

So tried and true techniques like the ambush interview can work.  But what new approaches can we take to open the doors of government to our cameras and microphones?  I’ll tell you something I’ve been trying.  I don’t catch them every time, but I try to get my reporters who get turned down for interviews by public officials to give me the name of the official and the excuse for not doing the interview. I’m particularly interested when that same official says no one else can talk. Having a spokesperson do the interview instead of the actual official is the same as a turndown in my book.  I look this information over on each story I edit and if it seems to me that an interview with the actual official would have been appropriate, I call him or her out in the story. Usually it’s as simple as a statement like this in the tag for the story: “Official X, the head of Department Y, refused to speak to us about story Z today.  He also refused to let anyone else from his department speak other than a paid spokesman.”

There is one word in there I’ll take a moment to emphasize. It’s the word “refused.”  That word is very important. Your millennial reporter will often want to substitute the phrase “was unavailable” for it. But as I like to explain those are two very different things. To me, “unavailable” means out of the country, in a hospital, or dead. But it sounds nicer to those millennial ears than that harsh word “refused.”  But it’s the right word—and it’s our right job as editors to let both our reporters and our audiences know when a refusal takes place.

So that’s my approach for now. I’m naming names. Public officials in my area may not care. Only a couple of them have called me to complain about my characterizing their “unavailability” as a refusal to do their jobs and speak to our reporters. Perhaps more will call as they figure out what it is I’m doing. I hope they will.  It might be the first time they’ve talked to a journalist in years.

  1. Cody
    October 2, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Great advice. This is why you will always be the man with a thousand votes.

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