Ethics Corner: ‘speaking’ through their mouthpieces

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By: Allan Wolper

This is a salute to the manufacturers of misinformation. The spinners who serve as beards for their political bosses. The men and women whose job it is to lie to the media and make them like it. They are America’s press secretaries. Sometimes they are quoted by name. But more often they are identified on the news pages as an anonymous “”spokesperson”” or hide behind phrases like “”The White House says”” or “”The Governor believes.”” All of this gives readers the false impression that reporters are actually conversing with the president or the governor.

Since the advent of televised news conferences, press secretaries have been providing cover for journalists who covet access to power at the expense of their readers. These journalists go to the press briefings and shout at the press secretaries, rather than doing some actual reporting to find out what’s really going on in their government.

The most obvious abuse of this process occurs in the White House, where journalists primp and pretend to be aggressive at briefings by White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

“”After Watergate, newspapers started assigning their best opinion writers to the White House,”” Mike McCurry, a former Clinton White House press secretary, told me. “”Now much of the information coming out of the White House is propaganda ? from both sides.”” That political dance makes the press secretary seem more important than he is, and the pundit allegedly more knowledgeable.

Press secretaries are just as pushy at the statehouse level. Last December, in Columbia, S.C., Lee Bandy, a political columnist for The State, spoke to legal experts who said Gov. Mark Sanford had the power to lower the statehouse flag to memorialize Rosa Parks. The governor had said he needed state legislative approval to do so. Bandy asked Joel Sawyer, the governor’s press secretary, for the names of the lawyers.

Sawyer wouldn’t do it. “”I am the one that speaks for his office,”” he intoned.

Bandy, who spent 31 years in Washington writing for Knight Ridder, shrugged it off and quoted Sawyer in his column. “”The job of the press secretary is to keep reporters from getting any information,”” he told me. “”They are today’s gatekeepers.””

Hank Shaw, capital bureau chief for The Record in Stockton, Calif., says press secretaries like to rewrite the statements of a president or governor or mayor who puts his foot in his mouth. “”That’s when they start telling you what this guy ‘meant’ to say,”” Shaw laughed. “”A reporter’s job is to get the quote right and not be influenced by a press secretary.””

Public officials like to give the impression that their press secretaries are acting independently even when they’re not. That way, they can later retreat from positions that receive negative reactions. For example, last month Gov. Tom Pawlenty of Minnesota issued a statement through his press secretary that suggested he was reforming the state’s FOI act by emasculating it. When reporters revolted, Brian McClung, the press secretary, amended the previous statement and wrote an Op-Ed piece in the St. Paul Pioneer Press to quiet the media crowd.

Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, blames the television culture for the power being exerted by press secretaries. Kirtley is annoyed by press reports which use the term “”spokesman”” or “”White House”” and obscure the origins of the comments. “”Those are weasel words,”” she said. “”The public is entitled to know when a quote is coming from a flack.””

That’s why The State in Columbia, S.C., won’t allow press secretaries in political campaigns to drop verbal bombs on their politician opponents. “”That kind of criticism has to come directly from a governor or a senator,”” said Aaron Gould Sheinin, a state government reporter.

Journalists cut their political teeth in small towns where local officials tend to list their home telephone numbers and where press secretaries are luxury items. And city halls are often press-friendly.

In New York City, the mayor routinely holds from one to three press conferences a day. “”New York City wants to get the dope directly from their mayor,”” said Sunny Mindell, a press secretary to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his communications liaison during his pre-presidential run. “”Press secretaries always speak for their principal, and they often get hammered. But they aren’t elected officials ? or anyone managing anything but the press.””

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