Friday, September 05, 2003


The idea of the media and public relations office has spun a little out of control.

As a nonwriting journalist, I’ve learned repeatedly that thinking like a journalist keeps me from getting screwed: that I should have kept notes when speaking with people who turned out to be adversaries, that I should have paid attention to the time something happened, that I should have been looking for the holes in someone’s story rather than filling in the gaps. I’m also just generally skeptical and curious and a strong believer in getting my facts straight. Otherwise I’m forced to insert frequent lame qualifications in my conversation and admit (if only to myself) that I don’t really know what I’m talking about, or at least that I may not have the full story.

So I try to find things out. When I was curious whether the Central Intelligence Agency felt its intelligence was abused to justify attacking Iraq, I called to ask. When I wondered at a price-control process that allowed a smallish milk to cost $1.70 at Logan International Airport, I called to find out how the process worked.

The CIA was interesting in that it treated me with contempt as a citizen; it was only when I claimed to be a reporter that I got any traction. The situation at Massport, which runs the airport, is more common. I spoke with a staffer there who -- unless there’s a problem with the phones at Massport that continues to this day -- literally hung up on me when she suspected I was a member of the press.

“I don’t really have permission to speak with the press,” she told me, and I could hear the coldness and tension growing in her as we spoke. She thought I’d tricked her into talking, because she talks to people; talking to the press is what the press office does.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? If a citizen has a question about how Massport’s airport pricing works, you talk to one person, but if a reporter has the same question, they talk to someone else. That someone else, of course, is trained in handling the press, but not knowledgeable about the topic under discussion. They can either ask an expert and pass on that knowledge, hoping nothing gets lost in translation, or allow a reporter to speak with the expert one on one (now that the conversation is known of and given an official okay).

But the press is the people. Nothing elevates the press above a citizen except that it knows that the information gathered will soon be disseminated, usually, to however many people pay attention to a given publication. One person calling gets answer A; but 5,000 people, or 1 million, get answer B.

This is dishonest, and the press is just as at fault as the media relations industry. The roots of journalism -- suggested by the name itself -- is in personal experience, whether it’s Nellie Bly pretending in the late 1880s to be insane to get inside an asylum (she also “worked in a sweatshop, got a job as a chorus girl, and had herself imprisoned, all in order to write exposes,” according to Stephen Bates’ “If No News, Send Rumors”) or Rick Guinness diving into a Connecticut quarry in the late 1990s to experience what other divers had (before dying from striking bottom in too-shallow waters). But despite journalism’s origins, personal experience had become frowned upon, considered unprofessional somehow, certainly by 1977, when the Chicago Sun-Times was assailed for running its own bar to find out firsthand whether city inspectors were corrupt. Now, except for a few holdouts, such as Guinness, most reporters sit in newsrooms and make phone calls, which they use to elicit stories from sources, explanations from officials and even emotions from the folks who are proposed to, attacked, reunited or forced to flee their homes (thank God for cell phones!).

Reporters are trained to ask for media relations offices and happy to talk to the people staffing them. It’s like eating at McDonald’s. Media relations people are happy with the arrangement too, because they’re in control, serving those meals, filling but laden with empty calories, on tidy trays with great efficiency. No one seems to think there’s anything wrong with a system that puts responses, those meals of varying flavor and substance, in separate boxes, one marked “the truth,” one marked “for the citizen” and the last marked “for the press.”

I know we’ll very rarely be handed the contents of the first box, but the press is supposed to represent the citizens. Giving it its own box is antithetical to its mission. In a very real way, if the answers are different from citizen to press, from box to box, the press can’t actually be representing the citizens paying attention to it.

We may all have to call to get our own answers. I’m sure the media and public relations industries would love that. They’d probably consider it out of control.

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