Reporter's Notebook

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News, Politics and Dead Children

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Politicians

I just listened to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a follow up report by CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed on the BBC Newshour.  A family in which a father, Abdullah Kurdi, lost both of his boys and his wife as he tried to get them to Europe from Turkey and the grief of the remaining family was featured.  One of his sons has become the subject of worldwide revulsion.  More about that later.

As I listened to the father and his sister crying over the death of the children, and the father’s pledge to put a banana on their graves each day (the children loved bananas), I was thinking about the function of emotional impact on breaking news stories and how politicians gravitate between amplifying and attenuating that impact in their own political self-interest.

When Terry Schiavo was at the center of a life support termination whirlwind in the early 2000s, the conservative elements of the American Congress rallied, along with then President George W. Bush, to try to prevent her husband from disconnecting Ms. Schiavo.  The Congress intervened as the country was embroiled in a debate about what constituted “persistant vegetative state”.  Eventually Mr. Schiavo did disconnect his wife from life support despite what some called the misplaced efforts of Congress.

This refugee crisis issue doesn’t seem much different in that the life of a people and their right to survive is being counterbalanced against public opinion which has again translated into political calculation.  Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing Iraq and Syria, crossing the Mediterranian, and landing in Greece and Turkey as they try to make it to Germany.  Germany has opened it’s doors to them but curiously, those people are being blocked by Hungary and are unable to reach Germany.  David Milliband, former Home Secretary for Great Britian, told Todd Zwllich of The Takeway today that the United States needs to begin taking more refugees to help reduce Europe’s crisis.

The Newshour’s Tim Franks paraphrased the speech by Mr. Harper addressing the crisis by saying that people can expect many more deaths.  Mr. Harper himself said he has visited a refugee camp and said the numbers of people awaiting transit to Europe stretches into the millions.  That clip, though possibly incomplete, seems to suggest that although there will be more deaths, we should not be surprised by them.  And that seems to be an oh-so-gentle way of beginning the distancing of the political responsibility from the humanitarian crisis.  That he has visited a camp apparently buys him little on the way to being able to actually address its existence.

Europe is hamstrung as to what to do about the flow of refugees, even though the spigot was turned on the moment President Assad of Syria began barrell-bombing citizens he called dissidents and turning a blind eye to ISIS operatives in his territory.  That is what began the flow of people west and north away from the Middle East and North Africa.  And it represents a second catastrophic failure of political will by the world in general.

Injured and dead children are no motivation for change.  Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as “Napalm Girl” from the famous photo taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War was nine.  The war raged on for three more years.  And if twenty murdered six year olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a gunman in 2012 didn’t affect the politics of guns in one of the most powerful and progressive countries on Earth, the ability of other nations to successfully address their own crisis doesn’t look hopeful.  Maybe it’s a defect in human DNA.  But when babies, like 2-year old Alyan Kurdi, the son of the father mentioned above, wash up on beaches as corpses or disappear beneath oceans because elections, public opinion, budgets and soverignty collide with empathy, resolution promises to be a long, slow, grinding process in which many many, many more will die indeed.

As a reporter, I understand how vile and intransigent politics and politicians can sometimes be.  But as a listener hearing a crying father, or as a reader looking at a picture of a toddler in tiny tennis shoes face down in beach sand, I find me sometimes asking journalism, “What am I supposed to do with this horror?”

Photo by Virginia Mayo of Reuters

The 10, the 5, TOUCHDOWN!

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football

Let’s talk about spokespeople. 

Often times, they are employees of the organization they represent, meaning they are staff rather than contractors.  That is an important distinction because it can affect the vehemence with which they defend their organization against allegations.  It means they may likely be emotionally invested in their co-workers by believing they not only have to protect the mission of the organization, but the relationships they have with the people in it.  And they likely have had to work very hard over a long period of time to convince their organization’s management structure to (1) trust that they will represent the organization faithfully to the press, and (2) convince that organization to let only them be the official voice when bad things happen.  Neither of these are easy to accomplish.

Organizations, by and large, have a bury their head in the sand reaction whenever something happens that attracts media attention.  Even good things that draw media focus can make managers unskilled with the media circle wagons.  Management views outreach as exposure.  A good media relations person, by contrast, builds relationships with the media.  They want to talk to reporters.  These two attitudes conflict frequently within organizations.  Only by showing aplomb and bringing consistently good press do PR people convince managers to relax when a reporter calls.  That’s the trust part.

Being the only voice, that’s harder because if an organization has not had a spokesperson or if that spokesperson has been ineffective, a new spokesperson must establish ground rules for employees in their interaction with the media.  And for employees who feel that talking to the media is no big deal, this can be an uphill fight for the spokesperson.  At some point, I’ll talk about bosses that say dumb stuff.  But with regards to employees, those unaware of particular company policy or discreet legalities can say some incredibly stupid things that can live in newsprint or on the Internet forever.  Management that has not made it clear that every employee must run any media contact through the spokesperson is setting them up to be called after hours by a reporter to confirm something that maybe, should’ve never been made public.

So a recent story by NPR was illustrative in showing how PR people can fail and how the media can end up doing an end run around them.  The US Customs and Border Patrol, an agency of US Homeland Security is at the center of scrutiny over the deaths of several dozen migrants that have crossed the southern border illegally in recent years.  When NPR’s John Burnett visited a CBP facility in April and asked questions of an official about the hierarchy of response officers must employ when confronted with rock throwing migrants, the female spokesperson abruptly ended the interview.  Maybe this happened because the NPR reporter asked questions that were not part of any pre-interview briefing between the reporter and the CBP.  But NPR most likely made it very clear that they wanted to know about CBP policy regarding hierarchy of response.  The interview was probably cut short because the agency was so hyper-sensitive to this issue, that hyper-sensitivity had trickled down to the spokesperson.  Perhaps management told her that under no circumstances do we want to address hierarchy of response since addressing it opens up the possibility of liability.  And she, being a good soldier, fell on that sword by turning away a national news reporter with a running recorder from a pre-arranged interview.

It didn’t look or sound good. Hear it here at about 2:18.

Months later, NPR went straight to the new head of the CBP, R. Gil Kerlikowske.  He’s had a reputation for prying open agencies by holding news conferences within 24 hours of incidents with negative press potential.  This had proved a winning strategy with the media but ran smack up against inertia by bureaucracies that hate bright lights. He is now doing the same thing with the CBP and told NPR that he would not only be more transparent but that he would specifically address directly the issue of hierarchy of response in a public way.

There is no doubt that the new manager and his new media policy is what got NPR in to see him.  Otherwise, that would’ve been impossible and NPR would’ve had to rely on leaks or other means and methods to discover agency intentions.  To get an idea of how impenetrable agencies can be, think about how open the NSA or the IRS are with the media.  Mr. Kerlikowske’s efforts are a big deal.

Getting back to that spokesperson, she may still have her job.  After all, she was just doing her job.  But I have no doubt that the irony was not lost on her, especially if she comes from a news reporting background.  Spokespeople tend to be the best informed and the most tuned into general society within the organization.  They read the mood of the surrounding media and balance it against what they know is happening inside the organization.  Then, they give their best advice to management.  It’s possible that spokesperson, from her own experience with crisis management, told her managers to be more open.  But she was probably overruled by a higher media authority, likely a public affairs office at Homeland Security, a cabinet level agency.

So you can bet that when NPR did its end run around her, if she still had that job, she may have felt a little betrayed.  It’s her job, ultimately, to do what she’s told.  But betrayal is not a feeling spokespeople are unfamiliar with.  You can trust me on that one.  For sure, I’ll bet she thought long and hard about how her own years of experience were considered (or not).

Grunt Work

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database

I haven’t posted to my state constitutions blog since I launched the site … too busy.  And, unlike the conventional wisdom that you beat the hell out of people with blog posts, twitter posts, linkedin posts, facebook posts, Google+ posts, tumbler posts, etc, I just kind of write when I think I have something relevant to say.  But I’m sharing this post with both blogs because they share a common element.  Lists.

I am a list builder.  It is one of my gifts (and curses).  I can build a list with phone book sized data in very short order because I am extremely focused and I know where to go and what to do when I get there.  To wit, I’m just about finished with a list of all of the mayors of all of the major American cities.  I started it yesterday.  I’m going to use it to tell them about my state constitutions website.  I am constantly hearing about how mayors bump up against governors, or how smaller cities are constantly wrestling with larger cities, or how municipalities and counties have disputes with the state over issues like Home Rule and taxes, for example.  So I guess that by giving these mayors access to a resource like my site, it might make it easier for them and their staffs to research questions just a little bit faster.

This makes probably the 10th such list aimed at the 10th such specific audience I’ve thought up.  I’ve got another three or four more lists, just as long and detailed, to go.  But when I’m done, everyone I can think of with interest will know about it.  Then, I’ll just have to wait for the idea to percolate.  But at least I will have done my part.

Written by Interviewer

December 31, 2013 at 00:35