Moving over from hack to flack

July 21, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

One of my favorite movies is the 1974 version of The Front Page, Billy Wilder's adaptation of the play of the same name by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

Set in the 1930s, it is the story of a Chicago tabloid reporter named Hildy Johnson who has decided to get out of newspapering - nobody called it journalism in those days - marry a nice girl and get into advertising in New York. His editor, Walter Burns, is desperate to keep Hildy. The story revolves around a hot news scoop about an escaped anarchist who is supposed to be hanged. But the big question is whether Burns will succeed in preventing his star reporter from leaving the paper. In the end, Hildy and his fiancee make it to the train for New York, where we expect he will settle into a respectable job as an ad man, with a nice house in New Rochelle. Unless his devious editor's last trick works.

The Front Page came to mind last week when it was announced that Gerard Shields, a reporter whose beats have included City Hall, was leaving The Sun to be Mayor Martin O'Malley's communications director, for $80,000 a year.

Newspapers are not what they were in the time of The Front Page. Reporters are called journalists and they make much better salaries than they used to. So the temptation to cross over is less than it used to be.

Quite a few Baltimore newspapermen have made the move in the past couple of decades, and not all have had a happy ending.

Some have resisted altogether. When William Donald Schaefer was running for mayor in 1971, his campaign asked John B. O'Donnell Jr., a former Sun City Hall reporter, if he would come to work for them, suggesting that something like the press secretary's job would be his if Schaefer were elected, which he was. O'Donnell, whose cousins - both also former Sun reporters - had been press secretaries to Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. and Gov. William Preston Lane, knew better than to take the offer. Schaefer spent twelve years as mayor and eight as governor. He went through more press secretaries than Henry VIII did wives. O'Donnell is still with The Sun.

Some newspapermen have done well enough in public service. Jack Eddinger, a former Evening Sun reporter who was Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III's press secretary, kept his cool and his dignity. But D'Alesandro was wonderfully transparent and only served one term. Peter N. Marudas, another Evening Sun reporter, worked for Mayor Theodore McKeldin, and for D'Alesandro III before going to work for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. But he was an "operative," so he knew a lot and never told the press anything.

The problem with being press secretary for a mayor or a governor - or a president, for that matter - is that the boss takes the credit for good news and lays off the blame for bad news. Martin O'Malley does not strike me as an exception to this rule.

In some cases, it's not just the boss one has to please; it's the wife, or "longtime companion."

Gene Oishi was press secretary for Gov. Harry R. Hughes when Hughes took office in 1979. Oishi had a distinguished career as a reporter and foreign correspondent at The Sun before joining the Hughes staff. (He became nationally known a decade earlier when former Gov. Spiro T. Agnew - running for vice president of the United States at the time - referred to Oishi as the "Jap." Oishi is a Japanese-American who was interned with his family during World War II. He should have known what idiots governors could be.) He did not last long in the job with Hughes. He was followed by Lou Panos, a veteran of the Evening Sun as a columnist and editorial writer. Panos was greatly frustrated over the Hughes administration's failure to take any of his advice in the savings and loan crisis. "It was a magnificent learning experience," he recalls.

Schaefer's multitude of press secretaries included Paul Samuel of the Evening Sun - at City Hall - and Bob Douglas of the now-defunct Baltimore News-American - at the State House. John Frece, a veteran State House reporter for The Sun, was briefly press man for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He is now happily running Glendening's Smart Growth program.

In the Hughes and Schaefer experiences in Annapolis, the press secretaries had to cope not only with the vagaries of their direct bosses, but also the conduct of official and unofficial first ladies. And in both cases, the most controversial part was decoration of the governor's official residence in Annapolis.

Patricia Hughes was determined to add her view of elegance and historic relevance to the place. So a lot of antiques were brought in and the decoration was supervised by Stiles Tuttle Colwill III, Maryland Historical Society's chief curator. There was a lot of harrumphing and criticism in the press, and who was easier to blame than the press secretary?

Schaefer came to Annapolis after Hughes, and his "longtime companion," Hilda Mae Snoops, got rid of everything Patricia Hughes had installed and put her own mark on the place. More harrumphing and criticism in the press. Bad press equals bad press secretary, right?

The only man I know who made the adjustment from hack to flack with great success and panache was Frank A. DeFilippo, a veteran of the News-American, who was press secretary for Gov. Marvin Mandel.

Flip, as he is still affectionately known, seemed to love being inside the bowl looking out. He became possibly the best-dressed man in Annapolis, short, but always dapper. He had a marvelous sense of humor and gift for making reporters feel as if they were being told the deepest secrets - most often about someone other than his boss.

He had a gift, but it was rare. Most reporters find it practically impossible to make the transition from searching for the truth to trying to manage it.

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