Wednesday, June 15, 2011

City's media policy: Not encouraging, but perhaps not set in stone

Posted By on Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 5:21 PM

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Wednesday morning’s missive from the city administration directed to city employees caused, shall we say, some concern among the ink-stained wretches of the local media.

In fact, it’s safe to say that some of the media went bat-shit.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Effective immediately, media interviews involving complex topics, policy decisions, matters under council consideration, other types of controversial issues, or with regional or national media outlets will be conducted only after consultation with the Communications Office.”

Complex topics? What city topic isn’t complex? If a reporter is calling for information, you can bet that the topic has some complexity. Otherwise, we’d just take it off the city website, or quote the latest vapid press release.

As described, this isn’t a media policy; it’s a muzzle. What city official, regardless of position, length of tenure, or span of control would talk to a reporter under such constraints?

As written, it looks and sounds like a declaration of war. And, given the speed at which the memo itself was leaked, it’s a war that the two Steves (Bach & Cox) can’t hope to win.

Whether the city's Dynamic Duo like it or not, the media is the messenger — the way that information is disseminated, filtered, and conveyed to the voters and taxpayers of Colorado Springs. It’s not just the Indy, the Gazette, and the electronic media. It’s also every blogger and everyone with a Facebook page.

We’re all in the business of getting and conveying information. It’s an honorable profession, the only one specifically protected by the United States Constitution.

Despite that protection, governments large and small despise the press. They’d prefer to do their business behind closed doors, to feed their constituents comforting lies, and make deals that wouldn’t stand up to public scrutiny.

Governments, like people, function best when they’re open and transparent and welcome public scrutiny.
Asked about the new policy, Mayor Bach was by turns defensive, accommodating, and stubborn.

“We’re just seeking continuity and clarity,” he said. “We don’t mean to bridle anybody. And if that policy becomes a barrier to access, we’ll change it. We’re in a transition period.”

But, Bach insisted, he wanted to make sure the media turn to the mayor with any questions about city policy, pending initiatives and proposed policy changes.

Would city employees be barred or discouraged from talking to the media?

“Not at all,” he said, “as long as they don’t (go off the reservation)."

Stephannie Finley, the mayor’s de facto communications chief, confirmed Bach’s statement.

“Just give him a little bit of a chance, will you?” she asked in mock exasperation. “You know how he is — all of you guys have his cellphone number, and there’s nothing closed or secretive about him. (The new policy) isn’t nefarious.”

Chief of Staff Steve Cox was equally conciliatory.

“We’re having a staff meeting on Friday,” he said, “and we’ll rework the policy.”

Would he then specifically empower city employees to talk to the media without permission and give them whatever information is requested (within reasonable limits)?

‘Well, we’ll discuss what changes we may need to make,” he said, conceding nothing.

We’ll see, but for the moment, we seem to be in an environment familiar to reporters in Washington, where few government employees are permitted to talk to reporters, and yet all do.

And it is, as we all know, an environment where secrets never leak, where elected officials are never embarrassed, and adversarial, partisan reporters seldom thrive. Right.

Let’s hope that the Bach administration changes its policy, because otherwise we’ll have to rename Fountain Creek — the Little Potomac, maybe?

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