The typical federal government press office is neither as well-informed as it might be nor as successful at news manipulation as critics contend, according to a new Brookings Institution study.
Instead, senior fellow Stephen Hess found, "most energy in a press office seems to be devoted to trying to find out what the rest of the agency is doing and gathering material that has been requested by reporters, rather than promoting carefully prepared positions.
"Most government agencies would be hard-pressed to point to anything as grand-sounding as a strategy" of news management, Hess writes in "The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and Their Offices," which was published today. In part, he attributes this to the distance between most policy makers and their press officers.
"To serve effectively as an honest advocate for a political executive and his policies, a press secretary must be 'in the loop,' Washington parlance for being included in the inner circle where alternative actions are debated, decisions concluded and plans formulated. . . . Perhaps one reason I witnessed so little successful government manipulation of the news media was because skilled press officers were so far removed from the inner ring." The White House press office, Hess said at a news briefing yesterday, "was one of those not 'in the loop.' "
Hess, who spent weeks observing five press offices -- in the White House, the Defense, State and Transportation departments and the Food and Drug Administration -- found that only one press spokesman was privy to the thoughts of top departmental policy makers.
He did not specify which one, but at yesterday's briefing he made repeated references to the close working relationship of former DOT spokesman Linda Gosden and her boss, Drew Lewis, when he was transportation secretary.
Often, Hess writes, the Reagan administration has kept press officials at arm's length because "they suspected them as the source of leaks." However, Hess adds, leaks are more likely to come from political appointees seeking to enhance their sense of importance, settle a grudge, push a policy or float a trial balloon.
In the study, Hess criticizes the State Department for funneling questions to a single source during periods of crisis, such as the Iranian hostage situation or the invasion of Grenada. This creates information bottlenecks, forcing reporters to get their news from other sources -- on Capitol Hill or in foreign embassies -- sources that State Department officials often consider unreliable, Hess writes.
At yesterday's briefing, Hess said these policies reflect the diplomat's traditional distaste for the spotlight. "The White House is a political operation," he said. "The generals need you for their reasons. The diplomats don't. The diplomats want to get a story off the front pages."
By contrast, he said, the Pentagon's many press offices tend to coordinate with each other early in the day, preparing by answering a list of expected questions. "The result is almost like McDonald's fast food -- information is going to be fast, it's not going to give you ptomaine but it's not a gourmet meal."
Press officers, Hess writes, "prefer to tell the truth; to lie is to fail to play fair with reporters and the public, to diminish their self-esteem and to complicate their work. But spokesmen are also expected to support the administration . . . and that may sometimes require withholding full information. . . ."
Hess also writes that "truthfulness in the government/press connection is limited by the possible and the present. The tacit understanding is that information given today could turn out to be wrong tomorrow." As a former high-ranking Defense official told Hess, "half the initial internal reporting within government in a crisis is wrong."