Leavitt: We’re the government, but we’re not here to help you understand us

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Some media companies still own printing presses, but it’s more important to have good stuff to print than to own the machinery. And that’s getting harder. (Irv Leavitt photo)

In the most information-rich period in history, you probably know less about what is really going on in your own governments than your parents did.

And it’s getting worse (of course).

The number of news outlets has likely burgeoned in your community, but few seem able to consistently and cogently describe what’s going on at City Hall, the high school, or the sanitary district.

It’s not just less-experienced reporters from the newer journalism companies. The traditional ones, where reporters (though stretched) are veterans, seem to be floundering around with the facts, too.

It’s like everybody got stupid, all at once.

The Society of Professional Journalists says that reporters’ jobs have become much harder due to the 21st century evolution of the job title of Public Information Officer. That’s because one of the key missions of Public Information Officer 2.0 seems to be preventing the public from acquiring information.

Almost every unit of government that can afford a PIO now has one. Many did before, too, but the PIOs — who may go by Media Relations Representative or other names — used to be relegated to press releases, newsletters and crisis management. Now, they are charged with being the gatekeepers.

Want to ask the municipal engineer, public works superintendent or water supervisor why there have been so many water main breaks? You have to ask the PIO first. Eventually, you may get to talk to the right person, after everybody’s met to get their stories straight. Or you may just get your answers strained through the PIO, who asked you to put all your questions in an email.

Is that OK? No, it’s not OK. The follow-up questions are where it’s at. That’s how you might find out little nuggets like the fact that in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, substandard steel was used to make many American water pipes.

How would you know to ask about that unless you somehow already knew?

So instead of learning about “the why,” readers may just see a story counting all the main breaks, or maybe discussing the effect on residents and businesses. But as for reasons, such as bad steel, pressure deviations due to poor planning, or chain-reaction breaks due to bringing water back too fast, readers may only see what the gatekeeper wants them to see.

The Society of Professional Journalists just came out with a detailed report on the rise of PIOs.

It maintains the gatekeeper system makes “it extremely unlikely that staff members will mention to reporters things like storage areas that might contain illegally held pathogens; or young children drinking lead in their water; or insider trading with the help of a federal employee.”

The report’s summary included descriptions of seven surveys, and these findings: Three quarters of reporters covering federal agencies said they can’t interview agency employees without approval. About a third of education reporters said they had been prohibited by PIOs from interviewing school employees, and over half of political and general assignment reporters said they’ve also been prohibited from talking to staffers, and when they can, bosses sit in.

And 40 percent of surveyed PIOs said there are “specific reporters they block from talking to staff because of ‘problems’ with their past stories.”

“Problems” probably range from ineptitude to way too much expertise.

So what has happened is that, for the diligent, almost every story becomes an investigation, and every investigation becomes a herculean task. And there’s no time for that anymore.

So everybody is always sending Freedom of Information requests to government, in an effort to force release of documents with answers. That means, however, that everything is slowed from today’s near-instantaneous news cycle to one that is measured in days and weeks.

Beyond the relatively long standard response periods, governments also often demand legal extensions, and send stuff at the very last minute possible.

Part of the reason for the delays may be that businesses have discovered the FOI laws. They use them to get information about their competitors’ plans, and free data to energize their own.

But the delays on reporters’ requests are still suspicious, if for no other reason than that governments often eventually send them documents profusely decorated with many stripy black excisions.

Then, you complain about that to the attorney general, or whichever office in your state is in charge of such matters. They may find in your favor, if they have the time.

They’re likely dealing with the same flood of paperwork as the governments, and the same short-staffing as the media companies.

If you ask government managers why they have gatekeepers, as I have, they often say something to the effect that there are now so many reporters that they have to protect their staff from the onslaught of questions, or they won’t get anything done.

This might have been reasonably believed, if the trend hadn’t started to take off at around the turn of the century, before those extra media outlets appeared.

This should not be a big problem. I have found that people who know what they’re doing can explain it quickly and easily to somebody who doesn’t.

But many government managers apparently aren’t willing to let employees try. Maybe some of them aren’t so swift, themselves, and they figure that the people they hire are screw-ups like them.

Or maybe they assume their staffers are just bad at talking, because they haven’t given them any training in it. So one person in the building, the PIO, gets all the training for everybody.

I asked one municipal manager where he gets off telling a staff member he can’t talk to me. He didn’t say, “I pay his salary,” but he came pretty close.

He doesn’t, of course. We do. And I’ve always looked at reporters as an extension of the public. If public servants owe explanations to their public, they owe them to reporters even more. Reporters find out stuff so everybody else doesn’t have to.

About three years ago, a delegation from dozens of journalism groups met with President Obama’s staff to address the PIO problems at the federal level. Nothing happened.

Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, said then that his boss should get credit for unrelated efforts at transparency, including proactive release of documents, and a regularly released log of White House visitors.

In President Trump’s first month in office, he was asked for a meeting on the issue, too.

The Enemies of the American People have not received their invitations.