Another Angle on the Inside Story

By John Kelly
Friday, February 24, 2006

Not long ago I abandoned a story I had planned on writing and for which I had started doing research.

There were several reasons I gave up on the article, the main one being that I realized I just wouldn't have the time, what with the demands of my daily column and the extensive volunteer work I do on behalf of prematurely bald harp seals.

But there was another reason: For the story to work, I was going to need access.

Now, I'm not talking access access. I didn't need access to administration officials or CIA operatives or NSA bigwigs. I needed to talk with normal people doing fairly normal jobs, but doing them at a semi-governmental organization, an organization responsible for operating a public attraction that I dare say most of us have visited.

For my story to work the way I'd hoped it would, I needed to visit these people in their offices, spend time with them, shoot the breeze.

Of course, this being Washington in the 21st century, I couldn't just show up, sit down and open my notebook. First I had to talk with the public relations people.

I understand the need for public relations people. Many of them are quite knowledgeable. When a reporter needs specific information on deadline, they are good at finding it. But sometimes PR people are barriers to information, not conduits. And even those who are conduits are often selective ones: crimped little pipelines encumbered with all sorts of restrictive valves.

That's what I sensed was happening in my case. What I'd hoped for -- relatively unfettered access to what I assumed were noncontroversial people -- was reduced to the promise of several prearranged interviews.

You didn't miss much by not being able to read my story, but all of this made me think: We embed journalists with military units in Iraq. Why can't we embed reporters with, say, Metro, or the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, or Fairfax County public schools or Freddie Mac?

We'd have a better understanding of what goes on there, and we could pass that on to you, our loyal customers. What's not to like?

"I imagine that those who are much more politically minded than I am would get the willies even thinking about it," said a public information officer for a local government agency. (So that the PR folks would open up, I promised not to print their names.)

Another said: "If you're sitting in on a staff meeting where people are being brutally honest with their supervisor about something they're working on, are they going to feel as free to speak their minds and give their honest opinions with a reporter sitting there?"

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