Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fighting the good fight

When I covered environmental news at a paper in the Northeast, I spent a lot of time on the phone talking to people who worked for the government in environmental and fish & game agencies. On the whole, a good bunch - easy to talk to, not a lot of bullshit, pretty knowledgeable.

Once or twice, I had to deal with people in the Department of Health and Human Services. On the whole, from my tiny sample, generally not a good bunch - lots of bullshit, average levels of expertise and hard to talk to. This was because the DHHS had a policy that journalists were supposed to go through a public information office to get hooked up with sources.

So, supposing you were writing a story about arsenic in drinking water and you knew that Vaclav Pavlacek (with his medical degree and doctorate in geochemistry) was the guy you needed to talk to, you weren't supposed to call him, but instead contact Dudley Dinkus in the public information office. You'd waste time filling him on what you planned to write about, and Dinkus would then promise to put someone in touch with you, not necessarily Pavlacek.

Well, fuck that. I'd just call Pavlacek directly and ignore Dinkus. If Pavlacek said he had to check with the information office, fine, whatever, but I'd be god damned if I'd call them myself.

The people who invent these public-information hierarchies try to sell them to you, as a reporter, as a big help in your quest for information.

"We know who has expertise in what, so we can make your job so much easier!" they enthuse. Sure, OK. I think I'd be happier making that call myself. If I need help, I'll ask.

The deeper, darker reason why these systems are bad - not just for one story, but for our country - is that they hide public employees from public scrutiny. Look, I get why journalists don't get unfettered access to the president, but to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency? Or a veterinarian working for USDA? That is a different ball of wax.

Anyway, I make a living by not having hard feelings about things, which makes these fights fun in addition to worthwhile. I feel for the public-information officers, though, who are just trying to make a living... Nah, I take that back. We're all getting paid.


Field Notes said...

At least you don't get paid to BS; I know I couldn't live with myself if I did. I bet you couldn't either ;0

Devil's Paradise said...

I used to work at a newspaper and from what I can recall a ton of PIOs were former journalists, who had actually worked in the field or had obtained journalism degrees. I always thought of them as traitors who were betraying the fourth estate. Good for you for skipping Dinkus!