Facts and Details


Eight years ago, the Office of Government Ethics, in its infinite wisdom, decided to allow civil servants to let journalists take them to lunch--as long as lunch didn't cost more than $20. The Washington Post, in a tongue-in-cheek Style section piece, asked several prominent writers about the impact of the change on their work.

"The truth is it doesn't really affect me," said veteran political columnist Jack Germond of the Baltimore Sun. "I don't take any bureaucrats to lunch. The things they know, I don't want to know. They know a lot of facts and details."

I was a young reporter just beginning to cover the federal government when I read Germond's remark, and it stuck with me. In fact, it's one reason I asked for the opportunity to write this column. Not to pick on Germond, of course--after all, he writes about politics, not the inner workings of the bureaucracy, and is justly regarded as among the best in his profession. But too many reporters can't be bothered with the "facts and details" of how government works.

On one level, the reason is obvious. The facts and details of government are complicated, messy and difficult to get across to readers and viewers in limited amounts of space and airtime. And most of the time, they simply don't provide good copy (except--I hope--in magazines like Government Executive). So the easiest thing to do is simply to ignore them.

But Germond's quote begs the following question: If journalists aren't interested in facts and details, what are they interested in? One answer is sex, scandal, drama--anything that can be expressed in simple, good-vs.-evil terms. Only in the absence of such scandals do many reporters take the time to look at the management and operations of the federal bureaucracy.

Take the Monica Lewinsky affair. When it finally ran out of steam in the media in early December, Howard Kurtz noted in the Washington Post that "things have slowed to the point that NBC's Lisa Myers, who broke many of the stories about just what Bill Clinton did with Monica Lewinsky, including the infamous cigar episode, spent part of the week on a General Accounting Office report about the Internal Revenue Service."

So why write about the media at all in a magazine for federal managers and executives? Because for better or worse, the media now has nearly as much of an impact on how agencies are run as Congress, the White House or the Office of Management and Budget.

There was a time when government executives only had to concern themselves with the Washington Post, other major papers, the TV networks and local news outlets. Now there are hundreds of cable channels, hundreds of talk shows, and thousands of specialized Web sites eager to dish dirt day and night on the foibles of government. All too often, they package their reports under such labels as "The Fleecing of America" or "It's Your Money."

The media is not only more pervasive than it used to be, but wields much more influence over how government operations are managed. Not only are major policy decisions--such as last year's vote in Congress to overhaul IRS operations--profoundly influenced by news coverage, but the everyday business of government has also been affected. For example, last November, Government Executive's Katherine McIntire Peters reported that Immigration and Naturalization Service managers must now get headquarters approval to conduct surprise inspections of work sites believed to employ illegal immigrants if such inspections might be "sensitive" in terms of their "media impact or community impact." (See "A House Divided", November 1998) The head of the INS' Baltimore district said his office conducts 25 percent fewer inspections as a result of the new rules.

Civil servants who think the media has too much power and influence can take solace in one fact: Americans like reporters even less than they like bureaucrats. Indeed, while ongoing efforts to reinvent government--and the continuing strength of the American economy--have led to some recent improvements in the public's perception of government, the media's reputation continues to plummet.

New York magazine recently published the results of a survey showing that 79 percent of Americans believe media organizations "distort or rearrange facts to make a story more interesting." More than 70 percent of those surveyed said major media organizations are sinking to the same levels as the tabloid press.

I hope that's not true. After all, I'm a card-carrying member of the media myself. So I don't intend to use this space simply to write about how news organizations always botch their coverage of government. And I do intend to write about what news organizations do well, and how the media can become a convenient whipping boy for elected officials and government managers seeking to divert attention from their own failures.

But mostly I just hope to shed some light on how the peculiar modern media beast works, and, in some small way, help federal managers in their quest to get reporters to pay attention to the "facts and details" of government.

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