Here’s a story: It involves an agency that shall remain nameless, a representative of which called me out of the blue recently (as federal officials sometimes do) to ask if we would be interested in interviewing a key official. Why yes, we would, I responded, after hearing about how this official’s important activities could hold out lessons for other federal managers about making a critical operation more efficient and effective.
From there, though, the process of actually setting up such a discussion rapidly went precisely nowhere. In fact, it disappeared down a rabbit hole of calls and emails to public affairs officers, demands from them to know exactly what we wanted to talk about, and enough roadblocks thrown to make it clear that, in fact, those in charge of handling the agency’s interactions with the media hoped we would just go away.
The end result? What was likely an important, illuminating story about government went untold.
I could cite many other such examples in recent years—many of them baffling tales of failure to succeed in getting officials to talk about good news stories that could only reflect well on an agency’s operations and the larger government.
Outside observers might say, “That’s the bureaucracy for ya.” But I know that isn’t true. I’ve been covering government long enough to remember when agencies were efficient and, on the whole, effective in telling their stories—and in understanding that it was in their interest to be helpful to those in the media, even when the news about them was bad, so as to get a fair hearing for their side. (Of course, that isn’t universally true. Some agencies, particularly in law enforcement, have never been eager about telling their stories.)
I understand what government is up to here. Officials, especially political appointees, want to control the message. To them, openness and transparency are all about data sets, finely crafted blog posts and carefully managed social media outreach. They want to strictly regulate what gets said and when. The Obama administration, for example, put a virtual clampdown on releasing information and allowing interviews with key officials in the months leading up to the election.
In the online age, agencies are in some ways getting better at telling their own stories. But they’re much worse at helping those who want to report on their activities from the outside understand what government is really doing. Indeed, some media relations offices now seem to take the position that their job is to stand between outsiders and agency officials, providing a barrier to any questions about what’s happening inside the walls of government. This, in turn, has bred cynicism among reporters. As a result, the reporting on government has become almost uniformly negative.
Of course, the news media has a lot to answer for itself when it comes to covering government. The Internet, the airwaves and quaint old print publications are filled with knee-jerk reporting on federal foibles.
It may be difficult for agencies to get reporters to pay attention to their stories, and to help them understand what’s really important. But if government officials don’t do that, the only time reporters will pay attention to them is after a scandal erupts. And at that point, you can guarantee your message isn’t going to get heard. Just ask the folks at the General Services Administration.
Agencies can’t stop people outside government from producing stories about what happens inside it. So, what harm is there in trying to help them do so in an informed way?