When Spin Gets In The Way

Question:  Who is the happiest man in America?

Answer:  David Letterman.

He and Tiger Woods have been in the news for thier “transgressions”.  But while Letterman’s controversy flamed out in about a week, Tiger’s continues to dominate the talk shows, cable news and front pages of the tabloids.  Why the difference?

Granted Tiger’s fame is considerably greater than Letterman’s and his “transgressions” appear to be more sensational than those of the late night TV host.  But while Tiger remains holed up, Letterman immediately came clean and apologized.  While the story did not end there, it lost considerable steam.

Perhaps Tiger is calling the shots and wants to keep it private,  but his statement had the fingerprints of high priced public relations consultants all over it.   Each day Woods remains hidden, it’s the “co-transgressors” who get all the attention.  Spin is getting in the way.

Since starting work in Central Ohio 11 years ago I have always been amazed at how public officials are overly insulated by their spokespeople.  The Dispatch has written about it and last week The Other Paper effectively questioned the practice.  In other cities where I’ve worked reporters did not interview spokespeople; we interviewed the policy makers.  We’d conduct impromptu interviews after meetings and at unrelated public appearances.  One city manager I covered drank a lot of coffee, and as a result made many trips to the men’s room.  If I could not get an appointment,  I’d put myself between his office door and the men’s room and interview him (as he was returning from the bathroom – I’m not that cruel). In just about every case he and other public officials graciously granted quick interviews.

Earlier this week a WOSU reporter approached an elected official (I’ll keep the names out of this) during a break in a public meeting and asked the official if he could talk about an issue.  At first he agreed, but then his spokesperson interrupted the interview and told our reporter that if she wanted to interview the official she had to speak to the spokesperson first.  After a five minute hallway meeting between the official and the spokesperson, the official answered our reporter’s questions.   But were the answers the official’s or his spokesperson’s?  Our listeners deserve to know.

So in the future if a WOSU reporter’s interview with a policy maker is delayed or interrupted by a spokesperson we’ll report it on the air.   You’d hear something like, ” Official ____ answered only after consulting with his/her spokesperson.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I very much admire public relations professionals.  I married one.  They perform a great service to reporters; they find information, provide background and arrange interviews. But sometimes they can get in the way.

Ask Tiger Woods.

- Mike Thompson

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