Recently at one of those chin-stroking sessions about how the press can do a better job of covering government, I piped up and said, “Well, it might help a bit if the government did a better job of telling its story in the first place.” In the days since, I have been thinking more seriously about this idea. In nearly four years as White House Press Secretary and in the half-year since I left the government, I’ve been asked to participate in many discussions about how the work of government gets reported to the American people. Not one invitation, though, has called for me to critique the way government makes its information available.
As Donald Kettl writes in this issue, press coverage of the executive branch has dropped significantly in recent years. When reporters do cover government, they’re likely to view it through the distorting lens of “scandal,” or for a local angle that might be of interest in a particular community. The bigger job of telling readers what the government does, and why, too often falls to the wayside.
How can it be that America gets less reporting about the day-to-day work of the government when, thanks to the revolutionary advance of communication technologies, we are living through an eye-popping explosion in the volume of information available? The answer is in line with a lesson taught by my former boss, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In a witty essay, “The Iron Law of Emulation,” he postulates that organizations in conflict become similar to one another. Over time, navies, football teams, political parties, and yes, adversaries like the press and politicians begin to mimic the tactics of the other even as they continue their combat.
How true. As news organizations in the nation’s capital assigned specialists to concentrate on investigative pieces on presidential scandals, we at the White House found lawyers in the Counsel’s Office to do media relations. Lanny Davis’ new book, Truth to Tell, describes the results of the curiously symbiotic relationship that developed between the two groups.
In vast areas where the press showed less interest, the White House proved to be much more ho-hum about putting forth public information. Mind you, we scoured the agencies and departments for interesting tidbits every morning. If you had to face a pride of lions licking their chops for Lewinsky at noon, wouldn’t you want to open the daily press briefing with a detailed discussion of the latest wrinkle in federal pension policy? These sessions irritated reporters but often generated requests for more information from citizens who caught a glimpse of something that might actually matter. No systematic method developed for getting these important but less-sizzling tidbits to the public.
In the main, the job of assembling information about the government’s work fell to the individual agencies and their public affairs staffs. Some were good at it, but most struggled. Without a captive press corps braying at the door, there was less pressure for them to tell their stories.
Then again, some preferred anonymity. When the Congress went Republican in 1995, many agencies were suddenly barraged with requests for data and information from the Hill that began to look suspect. You didn’t have to look hard to see a pattern of harassment, and before long, memos from the GOP leadership staff leaked to the press confirming that “diligent oversight” could be a euphemism for clipping the wings of an activist Democratic president. Many administration public affairs officers (and their bosses) were content to avoid any notice, lest a “meanie” Republican congressional oversight committee take interest.
This is no way to run a government. “Democracy is not a matter of entertainment, it’s a matter of engagement,” write John Herbers and James McCartney in a recent American Journalism Review survey documenting the decreased press coverage of government. “The Constitution requires close citizen attention if the grand experiment is to continue to work.” The brave media critic Tom Rosenstiel (full disclosure: my friend from high school) directs the Program for Excellence in Journalism and often says “journalism is a series of commitments, a series of responsibilities. It’s about being accurate, being courageous, telling people things that are important as well as interesting, finding ways to make the important interesting.” The Pew Charitable Trust’s Rebecca Rimel, a Joan of Arc for better journalism who funds work like Rosenstiel’s, writes that “Americans want statements that they can believe in. They want information that rings true But citizens do at times succumb to indifference and some fall into cynicism.”
Exactly. But journalists fall into cynicism too, and the government often falls short in providing those facts that are necessary for educated debate in our democracy. I am confident that the press will worry about its own performance. (The poor editor of this magazine has even cooked up some prize money to reward reporters who dig into the workings of government.)
I would rather concentrate on why the government seems to be missing the ball. In basketball, coaches tell their players it’s hard to miss a pass but easy to toss the ball in a misguided direction. Maybe the same is true here. Perhaps the government’s effort to inform the public has been missing the mark.
But there is not much pressure from the press to improve the public information function of government because reporters are instinctively suspicious of government flacks. They don’t believe folks from the government can be there to help, to provide useful information and tell interesting stories. But I know – having listened to many idealistic young press officers ask how they could increase interest in their agency’s work – that there are plenty of people who want to get better information into the hands of the American people.
But during routine times, a desire not to rock the boat leaves many public information operations in the doldrums. The trick is to find ways to keep the pulse rate high when the only drama is the goverment doing its job well.
These barriers are formidable. They stand in the way of a better-informed public. Often, the public and the press don’t even know the right questions to ask.
Now the good news. At the cusp of the 21st century, we are experiencing the greatest transformation in information technology since ink was first pressed onto gilded paper. The press and government offices won’t have to suck thumbs much longer at academic conferences about the quality of media coverage. The public is about to take matters into its own hands.
Within a few short years, our tools for unearthing information about the government will evolve dramatically. The Internet, personal computers, television, newspapers, magazines, telephones, radios – the essence of the public soapbox – are about to converge into a new set of home appliances that will redefine the entire concept of public information.
High-speed access to digital information anywhere, anytime will put a new premium on the ability to communicate. American citizens won’t have to wait for a daily press briefing, a nightly news broadcast, or the thump of a folded paper landing on the front porch to get information. It will be available all the time on-line and citizens will custom-tailor the way they receive their news.
Reporters and government information officers will have to make their stories more compelling, immediate, and useful to a time-sensitive public. In the Internet age there are fewer rules that govern the adversarial relationship between the government and the press. This means the relationship must evolve into a more amicable and less acrimonious one.
Look at government web sites and you can already see the transformation taking place. When I arrived at the State Department in 1993, there was no inter-office computer network in the Office of Public Affairs, let alone any ability to communicate with the outside world.
Two years ago, the General Accounting Office examined forty-two government agencies that spent almost $500 million to create interactive agency websites. Now there are more than one thousand agencies listed in a directory of web sites maintained by government agencies. They may not be as “hot” or “cool” as some sites, but they get good reviews.
Looking at these sites, I get giddy about the possibilities for improving the government’s ability to address the people’s right to know. Remember, though, that it is hard for government and the politicians who run it to tell the truth. That’s why we need people who will push and prod from outside. There is, in fact, an Association of Public Data Users, including information specialists at federal depository libraries, who are cajoling federal web sites to be more effective and responsive.
My guess is that all levels of government will get better at informing the public over the next several years. Local governments are leading by making data available on things that matter most: job openings, building code requirements, how to get driver’s licenses, how to dispose of waste, how to get birth and death certificates. These basic uses of public information will help drive a new, more interactive approach to communicating with the American public.
The changes are likely to be so profound that one day website managers who develop one-on-one solutions for citizens seeking public information about their government will be better known and more popular than White House press secretaries. That would make this former press secretary smile.