QUESTION: Who ever heard a Washington reporter say something like this?
"Well, thanks for the compliment on my story, but y'know, I really couldn't have done it -- certainly not as fast -- without the agency's press office. They steered me to the right background documents and put me in touch with the technicians who could explain things in English. And then they got me through to the undersecretary on the telephone for a few minutes to get some high- level answers to my policy questions."
Answer: Practically nobody ever heard a Washington reporter say anything like that.
Yet the truth is that every day, dozens of valuable Washington news stories are facilitated -- even originated -- by government press offices, the branch of officialdom whose job it is to deal with journalists.
In the numerous books they write about covering Washington, as in their conversations, reporters seldom acknowledge the services of government press officers. It goes against the journalistic orthodoxy to admit that anybody inside the government actually helps to get legitimate news stories out to the public.
High-ranking officials, similarly, rarely say much about the work of their press aides when writing their memoirs, and political scientists, too, have generally ignored the subject, with obvious exceptions for the White House press office and, sometimes, the State Department's.
Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution is thus in almost unmapped territory as he explores what he calls The Government /Press Connection: Press Officers and Their Offices.
He spent a year, starting in late 1981, observing press offices from the inside at the White House and the State and Defense Departments, which were chosen because of their importance, and the Department of Transportation and the Food and Drug Administration, which he picked because their press offices had good reputations. He was pretty much given the run of the place everywhere, he says, allowed to listen while press officers talked to reporters and to attend internal meetings at which it was decided exactly what would be said to the press -- and what withheld.
In addition, he interviewed a large number of journalists. Hess came away an admirer of most of those he encountered in press offices, of their intelligence and their devotion to getting the news out. He even came to admire "the lowly press release," though he does not fail to mention two, one from the Federal Aviation Administration and the other from Food and Drug Administration, that were deliberately designed to lead the press away from facts the agencies did not want emphasized.
Hess mighthave been more critical if he had picked some agencies with a reputation for sullen unresponsiveness or mendacity -- there's no shortage especially of the former. But he defends his basically affirmative conclusions well.
Hess also renders a verdict of "not guilty" to the most serious charge that is generally leveled against press offices: namely, that they manage or control the news.
"They are simply not skillful enough to manipulate news," he concludes and besides, there are too many other sources of information: Congress, special interest organizations, and so on.
Hess' other major finding pinpoints a troubling matter. High-ranking government officials, political or career, mostly keep their press officers in the dark, not trusting them because they are known to talk to the press and are suspected (wrongly, almost always) of being the source of leaks.
It is a conclusion that anyone who has ever served as a press officer will recognize a valid, though it should be stated at once that this reviewer seldom had any such problem while working as Joseph Califano's assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Califano understood, as he told his very first senior staff meeting, that the department would not get the full benefit of the special perspective of its press secretary if I was not kept informed.
His was a rare insight, as I was to learn from listening to my peers in other departments, who were constantly engaged in thinking up ways -- some of them as elementary as inventing a phony press inquiry -- to force their bosses to tell them what was going on. Whenever they failed in this, as Hess notes, reporters probably blasted the press officers for the runaround.
It is a shame that the higher-ups, political appointee and civil servant alike, who are actually to blame for the unjustified withholding of information so much of the time, will probably not bother to read this short book. They might learn something. They might even get a smile out of Hess' dead-on accurate digression on who the real leakers are and why they leak.
It's also a bit of a shame that Hess decided on a rather narrow focus for his book -- just the press offices. That excludes the magazines and countless pamphlets the government publishes, the TV spots and the sitcoms whose plots it tries to influence and a host of other undertakings that are often admitted under the same "public affairs" roof as the press office. These activities -- some of them indeed questionable -- need examination by someone like Hess who will do more than take the standard cheap shot that they are all improper and/or wasteful.
Someone also needs to take a serious look at different ways the Freedom of Information Act is implemented in different government departments and whether press and public affairs offices do it better or worse or about the same as units with no institutional links to free press.
Now that Hess has demonstrated that such matters are worthy of serious study, perhaps someone will do it.