Spokesmen outspoken on media relations

December 14, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Any reporter who covers government soon learns that journalists are from Mars and public officials are from Venus, and that not only are the two sides instinctively suspicious of one another, but also a lot of the time they don't even speak the same language.

Among the few people with first-hand experience on both planets are press secretaries, also known as official spokesmen -- or, less respectfully, as flacks. They're usually Martians who have been recruited by the Venusians to act as interpreters. It's a tough job because neither their employers nor their former colleagues are inclined to trust them completely.

Hazards of flackery

But at the same time, the flacks often have a better understanding than anyone else of both symbiotic worlds, the media's Mars and the government's Venus. When their careers take them from the former to the latter, they're transformed overnight from outsiders asking nosy questions into insiders trying to answer them -- or, perhaps, to avoid answering them.

This shows them how government really works, as opposed to how they thought it did. At the same time, it gives them a different and frequently less flattering perspective on the people whose job it is to report on it.

On a rainy afternoon this past week, four former gubernatorial press secretaries sat down together at Johns Hopkins University. Joe Sterne, The Sun's retired editorial-page editor, had collected them in the expectation that they might have useful things to say about both the making and the reporting of public policy, and as it turned out, he was right.

The flacks, all skilled journalists with something like 115 years of experience in the news business between them, were Frank DeFilippo, who worked for Marvin Mandel; Lou Panos (Harry Hughes); Bob Douglas (William Donald Schaefer); and John Frece (Parris Glendening).

Today, Messrs. DeFilippo and Panos are back in the news business, Mr. Douglas is a lawyer, and Mr. Frece has left the press office to take another job in the Glendening administration. They worked for four very different politicians and had to deal with very different issues. What was remarkable, however, was their unanimity on a few fundamental points.

First, all four agreed that when they went into government, they found it both less calculating and less organized than they had suspected as reporters. For as government is operated by human beings, they learned, it's usually as confused as any other area of human activity.

They also agreed that government is fundamentally reactive. It spends much more time and energy responding to outside stimuli -- scandals, disasters and newspaper editorials, to name a few -- than in initiating policies. The policies it does initiate are likely to be more bureaucratic than substantive. Government, Mr. DeFilippo said, tends to spend a lot of time tinkering with itself.

There was reluctant agreement among the four that both government's relations with the press and the press' performance in covering government have steadily deteriorated over the three decades they've been observing these things. This was attributed partly to what might be called the Watergate Effect, meaning the suspicion that every public official is corrupt, and partly to the elimination of competition between news organizations.

Lack of competition

Twenty years ago, for example, five major newspapers covered the governor's office in Annapolis. That meant an inaccurate or incomplete story in one paper was likely to be clarified or updated in another within a day, to the benefit of both the government and the reading public. But today, only The Sun and the Washington Post are left covering state government on a regular basis, and most of the time, like a pair of over fed lions in a cage, they simply ignore one another.

John Frece, perhaps the most eloquent of those at the Hopkins session, sees the news business today as seriously troubled, and much more concerned than it used to be with circulation at the expense of accuracy. ''Gotcha!'' stories, about presumed wrongdoing no matter how minor, he believes have tended to push the drier coverage of many complicated public issues right out of the newspapers.

A revolving door

He and others on the panel cited an erosion of the civility that, however edgily, used to prevail between reporters and flacks in Mr. DeFilippo's day. And rapid newsroom turnover, Mr. Frece went on, inevitably weakens a paper's institutional memory and thus its reporting.

Journalists who've never worked in government may dismiss all this as the carping of apostates. But to one former Martian who's never been to Venus, much of it sounded a lot like common sense.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.