In Defense of the Governor's 'Gag' Order

NEIL SOLOMON

July 23, 1992|By NEIL SOLOMON

While the press has been having a good time with the recent ''gag'' order imposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, I feel compelled to raise what I consider to be some interesting points.

First, I haven't noticed a dearth of state news from the headlines and airwaves of local newspapers, radios and television stations since the gag order supposedly took effect.

People are still learning about the state's fiscal crisis, the governor's travels to the Democratic National Convention, and other assorted bits of state news. Actually, in addition to state news, the media have had the fun of blasting away at the governor for purportedly ''gagging'' them from telling Marylanders what's happening.

Second, if Governor Schaefer were the president and chief executive officer of a major corporation, I believe things might have played out differently.

Try this scenario. The president and chief executive officer (CEO) of a major corporation holds a meeting with his department managers. At that meeting the managers are told they are not to speak to members of the media without first notifying the vice president for corporate communications, who in turn will share the information with the CEO.

The rule, which had always been in effect, was repeated because some managers, in response to media inquiries and often telling good stories, are speaking to the media without the knowledge of corporate headquarters.

The result was often the CEO finding out something by either reading an item in the newspaper or hearing a report on the radio. In some cases, media representatives made follow-up telephone calls seeking comments from the CEO about things of which he was often totally unaware.

Additionally, the CEO knows that when, for example, three different departments work on a project, all three send releases to the media highlighting their part in the program. The lack of coordination in dissemination of information can lead to confusion regarding the program.

So, the new rule emphasizes the old: No one speaks to the media without informing the vice president for corporate communications. Sounds reasonable enough. Nothing to gag on.

In essence, it's the same rule Governor Schaefer requested of all his department secretaries and their public information staffs.

The governor went further, asking them not to talk with state senators and delegates without prior approval, so that he can be aware of what is being said by whom, especially since it can and often does reflect and refer to state policy. But the response from all has been nothing short of incredulous.

In effect, it is not a gag order -- it is a request to let the governor know what is happening in an intricate and diverse organization. For those inquiries that can be anticipated, time should not be a problem. It also allows for the coordination of information that overlaps from department to department.

For the more pressing questions, time may be of the essence. But if the governor's press office is well organized, turn-around time should be of no consequence and reporters should have their stories well in hand by deadline.

What's the difference between the president/CEO of the major company and Governor Schaefer? Both are responsible for multi-million dollar budgets, both are major employers, both have continuing stories of media interest.

But Governor Schaefer is managing the interests of the State of Maryland on behalf of the people of the state. Ergo, anyone should be able to speak to the media when and where he or she wants. Wrong.

Department secretaries, PIOs and others have a duty to inform the governor of the happenings within their area of responsibility especially as it pertains to media and public interest.

And the press office has an obligation to make quick decisions and keep the flow of information smooth between that office, FTC state departments and all others so the flow of information to media is not impeded.

In asking to be informed, Governor Schaefer has done what every strong CEO in major corporations across this country has done: Make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.

Dr. Neil Solomon, former state secretary of health, is current chairman of the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission.

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