Looking at the transparency issue from the perspective of those who have had to deal with the media

In reaction to the buzz about the chairman of the Ethics Commission making a rule that the press has to deal with him and him only, Bob McAlister — communications consultant, former director of communications and then chief of staff to Gov. Carroll Campbell — had this to say on Facebook:

This is a case of media hyperventilation. Any organization has the right—indeed the responsibility—to decide who acts as spokesman. There’s nothing here to suggest that the Ethics Commission’s openness and access to reporters will be curtailed. Who better to speak for the agency than the person who runs it? The press has the right to know the truth about an agency; it does not have the right to dictate who gives them the information they seek.

I don’t disagree with Bob at all. If I were running an agency that deals with matters as sensitive as those the Ethics Commission deals with, I would want to make sure the message that went out accurately described the agency’s position. Especially if I was dissatisfied with something someone in the agency had said publicly.

But there’s something I think Bob’s ignoring here: The irregular manner in which this new policy was propagated. The chairman didn’t bring it up for discussion in an open meeting or call for a vote of the commission. He just issued an edict, unilaterally — which makes the whole thing look worse.

Now, giving the chairman the benefit of the doubt, this could just be a kinder, gentler way of dealing with a subordinate whom he views as a loose cannon. That is halfway suggested in the story in the state. I say “halfway,” because first, Chairman James Burns (not to be confused with Jimmy Byrnes) and Executive Director Herb Hayden, were paraphrased as saying this was not a move to silence Cathy Hazelwood, the agency’s deputy director and general counsel, who has been quite free with statements in the past:

Burns and Hayden said the new policy was not an effort to stop Hazelwood, who declined to comment, from speaking to the media…

And then, in the next graf, Hayden is quoted as suggesting the aim IS to silence Hazelwood:

“We don’t want to give the impression that Cathy as the prosecutor is already predisposed to any particular action on any particular case,” Hayden said. “(Y)ou don’t want the prosecutor making a statement that could imply that they’re going to (make a decision) one way or the other. Her role is to evaluate the evidence presented during an investigation.”

Interesting thing about that point: Were this the criminal justice system, the prosecutor is exactly the person I would expect to be free to comment on a case. You would not expect the judge or jurors to comment. Prosecutors, by their very nature, take a position. It is the job of the judge and jury “to evaluate the evidence presented,” and to do so impartially. And in the case of the Ethics Commission, the commission that Burns chairs is the judge and jury.

To move on…

Bob wasn’t the only person to stick up for the new policy.

Later, on the Facebook link to my earlier blog post on the subject, Matt Kennell, president and CEO of City Center Partnership, observed that recent anti-transparency developments “may be pushback to some abuses by the media… from expereince.”

That is a separate issue. That observation popped up on my iPad as I was eating breakfast this morning. Moments earlier, Matt had been sitting at the table behind me, so I turned to ask him to elaborate. But apparently, he was downstairs at his desk by then.

If I were currently an editor or news director in the local MSM, I’d give Matt a call and ask him what the problem was, and clear the air, so that there is less likelihood of a problem next time…

11 thoughts on “Looking at the transparency issue from the perspective of those who have had to deal with the media

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Matt Kennell called me a few minutes ago to explain that he has had a bad experience with one journalist in particular, which caused him to react as he did…

    That happens sometimes. Sometimes it’s the reporter’s fault, sometimes it’s the sources, and sometimes it’s nobody’s fault in particular — just an unpleasant situation. The news biz is replete with those.

    But it can color a source’s general feeling about journalists and what they want.

    You can hear in Bob’s reaction a tone generated by bad experiences as well. There’s a gut reaction that militates against caring WHAT reporters want.

    And there you see the fine line that journalists walk. When they decry a lack of openness, a jaded public reacts with the attitude that reporters are a pain in the rear, so who cares what THEY want. Until, of course, there’s something you want reporters to dig into and find out more about. Then, they are perceived as insufficiently aggressive…

    1. Doug Ross

      ” jaded public reacts with the attitude that reporters are a pain in the rear, :

      Really? I would think the only public critics would be those who want to control access to information. When has the public ever thought the press overstepped its bounds in pursuing stories related to government?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Doug, I learned early in my career that the public has little sympathy for the challenges reporters face in doing their jobs. They see reporters as obnoxious, based on a number of things, prominent among them televised press briefings in which journalists come across as rather gross in their aggressiveness.

        If you push back, as Bob did, you get comments like this one: “Preach on brother, preach on!!” Especially from people of a conservative persuasion, because they tend to regard the press as the enemy.

        If you’re an editor advocating for openness, you need to be careful to couch it as keeping things open to the PUBLIC, not making reporters’ lives easier….

        1. Doug Ross

          I guess we just have different perspectives. You see things from a smaller, inside circle. I can safely say that in my 50+ years, I’ve never heard anyone express the opinion that the press was going too far in trying to discover information about the government.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      To elaborate on that a bit more…

      An incompetent reporter — one who makes mistakes and doesn’t own up to them, or one who lacks the people skills to find out what’s going on without alienating everyone concerned — can make it tough on the rest of us.

      When I first got to know Bob, when he was in Campbell’s administration, he dealt with me with all the wariness inspired by bad experiences with other journalists. But eventually, we formed a positive relationship based on mutual trust. I have a lot of respect for Bob, and he’s indicated he respects me as well. Which is a good thing.

      In a simple world — the kind that a lot of post-Watergate journalists wish existed — personal relationships wouldn’t matter. In fact, anything bordering on friendship is seen as a taint on the proper dealings between journalists and sources. But in the real world, there is a personal element to everything. The key is to have the intellectual detachment to be fair without regard to such personal relationships.

      Which, for a lot of people, is a tough tightrope to walk…

      1. Doug Ross

        Let’s be real here.. Bob McCalister is paid to spin stories in the most positive light for his clients.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    “Were this the criminal justice system, the prosecutor is exactly the person I would expect to be free to comment on a case. You would not expect the judge or jurors to comment. Prosecutors, by their very nature, take a position. ”
    But your friend Justice Toal seems to think Alan Wilson is insufficiently impartial to prosecute Bobby Harrell…

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    I think MOST people have an issue with the TV reporters crowding victims of tragedy with “how do you feel?” questions. They do not have an issue with Woodward-Bernstein wannabes.

    I do think some print reporters, which is a rather redundant term, since TV “reporters” are seldom worthy of the title, can be too prone to seeing stories though a lens clouded by Watergate, etc., but most, in my experience, are honestly, sincerely, trying to find the truth and write what their investigations reveal.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, I can’t argue with any of that. But I think the specific problem (asking grieving people “How do you FEEL?”) is a separate phenomenon. The movement from serious coverage of news to covering people’s FEELINGS is one of the saddest stories in journalism in my lifetime. And newspapers do plenty of it

      But newspapers do it quietly, and not on camera.

      The dynamics of the media availability can make reporters look bad to people who don’t have the jobs that reporters do.

      For instance, I’ve gotten negative feedback from people because, at that nationally televised availability in which Mark Sanford dropped his Argentina bombshell, I shouted, “Governor, are you going to resign?” as he was walking away at the end.

      I did that because Sanford had just subjected me to 45 minute or so of his own personal soap opera, without once addressing the one relevant thing that I, as a voter and as a journalist, had every right to know: Did he intend to continue in office as governor? He had said he was stepping down as head of the Republican Governor’s Association. So whether he was stepping down as governor was the logical next question, and something that was RELEVANT, unlike all the other stuff he had just told me.

      Of course, I wasn’t thinking like a reporter in that instance; I was thinking like an editor. Reporters were busy didn’t all the details of this mind-blowing tale he was telling. I was moving beyond that, to the sort of thing I would tell a reporter to find out. I was stepping back and asking, “What’s relevant here?” And whether he would continue in office was relevant…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        OK, so the presser didn’t last 45 minutes. It was more like 18. But we had been waiting at least half an hour before it started…

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