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The New Gatekeepers 

Is government spin spinning out of control?

Arizona Secretary of State's Office," said a polite voice on the other end. "May I help you?"

Yes, actually, she could. I was researching campaign contributions for a particular ballot initiative, and I got lost on her office's Web site. Then, bingo! Here I was telecommunicating with the woman holding my answer at her fingertips.

Only she couldn't talk to me.

"I'm sorry; first, you'll have to go through our press person, Kevin Tyne," she said. "Unfortunately, he's not here today."

Say what?

Turns out that Tyne, who also wears the title deputy secretary of state, is gatekeeper for all information leaving his office. And if he isn't around, the gate to this fiefdom is locked tight.

If this were an isolated incident, it would be forgettable. But as more government agencies funnel reporters through such anointed spin doctors, experts worry that open government may be the big loser.

Among those experts is Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center, at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. "When you're talking about government entities, journalists ought to have the right to go to newsmakers directly and talk to them," Davis says. "These officials are spending our money."

But instead, they "strangle free inquiry and direct it toward some flak in central headquarters, who cleans everything up to make it look nice and happy-happy. That sounds a lot like propaganda to me."

He calls it a burgeoning problem. "The rise of media relations as a branch of government has been coming on for a long time. Over the last 25 years, there is probably no arm of government that has grown more exponentially."

This issue "comes off sounding like whining reporters," Davis says. "But it's not just about whining reporters, because it's not reporters who ultimately suffer. It's the public that suffers."

In my own reporting, I've encountered everything from lying public information officers to clever, PIO-orchestrated shell games. For example, one story involved UNICOR, a corporation operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. After phoning several Unicor PIOs--all of whom refused to comment--I finally reached Larry Novicky, general manager of Unicor's electronics group and the subject of my story. But Novicky also refused to comment--and referred me back to his PIOs.

I've also endured tense, PIO-dominated conference calls, such as one with a nervous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee. It took me days to reach her, and when I finally did, she could only talk with a handler listening in.

"Think about that," says Davis. "I can be a public employee in the United States of America, but I can't speak to you without the approval of my minder. Sounds a lot like China. To me, it's authoritarianism, frankly."

Others don't see the situation so starkly. "In the best of circumstances, with talented, qualified individuals, (the PIO system) works well," says Bob Steele, a journalism ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism resource center. "But the PIO concept depends both upon the skills of the PIOs and the good intentions and integrity of the executives in those organizations."

If integrity is lacking, situations can quickly sour. "For instance," says Steele, "if a PIO urges the executive to be forthright and honest about a key issue, and the executive either stonewalls or is dishonest, then you have a little problem--and the PIO is (the one) who gets caught."

To see this in action, find a few old clips of former White House spokesman Scott McClellan. He was forced to backpedal on many occasions, after contradictory White House statements regarding Hurricane Katrina relief, the vice president's hunting accident and other events.

For McClellan, the product of those reversals was an increasingly fractious relationship with reporters.

Ultimately, trust had broken down. "And that trust is invaluable," says Kimberly Schmitz, local chapter president for the Public Relations Society of America. As a PIO, "you want to make sure you are always giving the media concise and correct information. You want them to trust you, and to come to you."

In turn, effective PIOs can focus an organization's message, says Schmitz, who is also communications director for the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau. "That way, we can be sure there are no differing messages or conflicting messages, or leaving something open to interpretation."

But should public officials be paid to shape messages for public consumption? And what happens when PIOs--and their agencies--attempt to lock that slender information gateway?

On example occurred in July, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency prohibited FEMA trailer-park residents from speaking to reporters without an agency handler present.

Charles Davis also co-chairs the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee. And he helped pen a pointed SPJ letter to FEMA Director David Paulison protesting the policy. Eventually, the agency backed down.

Still, such information control is endemic in government. And according to the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, Fla., while public officials are required to release most government documents upon request, no law compels them to provide verbal information to reporters or anyone else.

But problems worsen when foot-dragging officials also attempt to gag their colleagues. And typically, they don't leave a paper trail: Although everyone I contacted in the secretary of state's office said they needed clearance to speak with reporters, Deputy Secretary Tyne denies that such a policy exists.

But in the next breath, Tyne says that all office media inquiries must pass through him. (This after I finally reached him several days later, and for a different story.) "Certainly, we like to get information out to the press in a correct and efficient manner," he explains. "And this is the way, as a business practice, that I do that."

But according to Charles Davis, only public apathy allows officials like Tyne to wield such information control. "It's the citizenry's laconic reaction to creeping authoritarianism," he says.

"I mean, if you have a resident in a FEMA trailer park talking to a reporter--on a street in the United States of America--and a security guard comes up and threatens them for having a conversation, then what the hell kind of country are we living in?"

More by Tim Vanderpool

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