Leaks, Lags and Lies

January 29, 2020 11:00

Journalism has found itself at the crossroads of duty and the lure of celebrity.

Celebrity is not a dirty word. It’s a necessary element of our society. Those blessed with it often use the attendant power and resources to champion the causes of the disadvantaged.

But the path to celebrity can run through some very dark places inhabited by a strain of people for which it is everything and anything less is failure.

Celebrity, which can deliver privilege, money and power, often comes with a cost, a sacrifice that leeches away time, privacy, even principles and often duty.
Emblazoned on the gigantic glass window plates on the main conference room at WTOP are the words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press…”

But that iron-clad guarantee for journalists, from our nation’s founders, has been obscured, in the world of public affairs journalism, by a growing, toxic cloud of intolerance, self-aggrandizement and blatant abuses of power. The dark mist hangs over journalism and public affairs officials (PAOs) like a stubborn cloak of contamination.

The majority of federal agencies I deal with have been willing to fulfill interview and information requests, but some have been reluctant for one reason or another.

In more than 20 years of covering U.S. government agencies, I’ve noticed a slow, degree-by-degree turn away from standard access practices. If you or your organization are not a celebrity in the eyes of the gatekeepers, the likelihood you’ll get locked out is growing.
A little more than a decade ago, the tactics of some U.S. government public affairs operations began to shift. Instead of the all-access posture towards all accredited press organizations, they became more selective about which media could receive which information and under which circumstances.

The pool of organizations getting full access shrank, as did those getting limited access. The door still remained opened to the rest, but what they got was very often late and significantly reduced.
And today, some government agency public affairs officials have essentially slammed the door on accredited press that they simply don’t want to be bothered with. 

There are three warning signs:
/leks/ noun - the unsanctioned release of confidential information to news media 
U.S. government news leaks have been around for many decades. In the 1960s and 70s, they were rare, but explosive – i.e. The Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Leakers utilized trusted news outlets to inform the American public about hidden, dangerous and often unlawful decisions and behavior by government officials.

They were called “whistleblowers.”

Some very brave and honorable whistleblowers have put their reputations and lives on the line throughout the last five decades, especially in recent years and months, for the common good.
Coverage Guidelines: Working with whistleblowers

But the leakers I’m discussing are not in that category. They leak routine, often mundane, and inconsequential information, wrapped in a cloak of immediacy that passes for breaking news. But two days later, it’s hard to remember what it was.

Several current and former government public affairs officials tell me these leaks take place because of the pressure and speed that social media puts on them to make sure their story is delivered intact, without the manipulation which is so often the case with social media.

These same officials, who requested anonymity, say today’s leaks are frequently designed to obtain personal fame and relevance not just in political and government circles, but in broader social circles, especially on social media platforms. I’m told, and I’ve seen evidence, that leaks are used to curry favor with certain high profile journalists and media organizations, and unfortunately to block access by lesser known others.

One former government public affairs official told me in 2015 while on the job, “it’s mostly done to provide future opportunities, once we leave government,” – in other words, jobs as media analysts, reporters and executives.
/lag/ (verb) a slow response to a press inquiry.
Another very cynical element in the media/public affairs dance is something I call “lags” or “slow-walking.” That happens when you reach out to a PAO to ask for an interview or statement on something you’re working on, and they respond with one or more of the following:
  • “Let me check and get back to you”
  • “He/She is out of the office”
  • “It’s a very busy time”
  • And my favorite –“She/He is traveling” (like they don’t have mobile phones)
All of those responses, if they are genuine, are completely valid, because in today’s breathless world, every one of us faces an intensely accelerated stream of demands on our time and attention.

But, when they never get back to you, or they’re still busy when you follow up, on multiple occasions, or they’re still not available weeks and months later, then you are simply the victim of a recurrent problem –an elaborate intentional falsehood.
/LÏ/ noun - an intentionally false statement

The most discouraging part of being professionally “ghosted” (the practice of ending a relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication)  is when the very person you requested an interview with, who was not made available to you, turns up elsewhere, on a cable TV network for example, talking about the same thing you asked about. And by the way, they’re on that network two or three times a week.

This exposes what is simply called a lie.

This is not a new phenomenon, but it is a by-product of the times we live in.

Many good PAOs are hemmed in by office politics, policies or their superiors, but others, I’ve learned from personal experience, simply don’t respect you or your work.

One former White House press official told me in 2009, “You and your station are not worth our senior leader’s time.” But anyone familiar with the product and presence of WTOP at the time knew better.

I thought for years that this kind of thinking was a personal swipe at me and my outlet. But finally, I’ve discovered the truth.

Yes, it was a personal swipe. Not because the perpetrator necessarily had something against me or my employers but because, in the “celebrity culture” we live in, some government public affairs officials believe it’s ok to be rude, to lie and segregate journalists, based on their organization’s agenda or their own whims.

Recently, a US government agency held an important news event, and I, having been on their list for years, only found out about it, when I read a story in the press. I wrote to them and asked what happened. The response was:

“Apologies for the oversight. Someone will get back to you tomorrow.”

They never did.

Considering that was the third time in the last year something like that had happened, the message to me was very clear – we do not matter to them.

This is dangerous, insidious and counterproductive. Freezing out accredited news organizations of any size, and then limiting them to anemic statements, dripping with resentment, after being challenged about it does little to provide the information the public deserves.
The danger of the “celebrity” public affairs mindset
If celebrity is stirred into the mix of considerations when determining which outlets get access to public information and under what circumstances, we have a problem.

I and other reporters I’ve spoken to have noticed that, in some cases, it’s no longer enough to be an accredited journalist and to go through the appropriate channels to request interviews and information from certain (yes) federal agencies. It seems you now need a media pedigree as well.

Swapping the mantle of ethical journalism and official duty to provide information to the public –all of the public –for the call of celebrity and the trappings of fame, is becoming an accepted practice.

That is troubling and wrong for two reasons:
  1. The government belongs to the people –all of the people. That means people from every possible station in life, including rich and poor, famous and completely obscure.
  2. We, the press, work for the people.
We journalists, the surrogates for the public and the guardians of their rights to objective and truthful information, are ourselves responsible in part. But gatekeepers of the public’s information bear responsibility too.
We’ve reached a critical point, from which there may be no return, unless we journalists and media organizations –big and small -recognize one critical thing:

If we keep playing along with this game of celebrity media musical chairs, skewed in favor of the biggest and fastest, one day, we will be the ones without seats at the table of history. It’s just a matter of time and attrition.

So when you see it happening, I suggest three actions:

Confront it, document it and publicize it. 

A non-confrontational, polite and professional demeanor is recommended as always. But be upfront, firm about the problem and clear about your desired outcome.

Be aware: retaliation could be a response. So, like a good journalist, never throw away your notes.

It’s important to remember that when a victim is quiet about unprofessional behavior, often the perpetrators think you are scared, indifferent or not smart enough to realize what they are up to.

A wise, old journalist told me many years ago, “Just because a person is working on a noble cause for a principled organization, that doesn’t guarantee they’re committed to the ethics expected of them.”

Reporters and public affairs specialists, and elected officials alike, by virtue of the seduction of followers, friends and likes on social media, and the instantaneous fame of TV networks are all vulnerable to the celebrity effect.

The trick is to understand it and manage it, and remember we’re all public servants.