In the decade-plus I’ve been a reporter, there’s a been a disturbing trend. Governments have gotten savvier at putting out and controlling information. They’ve gotten nastier when reporters don’t follow the script.
Most recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo has gone to absurd lengths to protect even innocuous information. The New York Times and Albany Times Union reported on how his staff removed items from the state archive of Cuomo’s years as attorney general. Things like…a presentation on how to improve traffic to the office’s website.
But there was one document in the public interest that was removed after the governor’s staff found out the Times Union had it – a 2007 memo detailing the process for investigating the Troopergate scandal. The fact Cuomo’s people wanted it squashed likely made the memo a much bigger story.
Jimmy Vielkind of the Times Union, detailed multiple instances of the Cuomo administration’s lack of transparency. They’re adding up. The staff “routinely goes directly to nuclear level nuclear” on reporters. Cuomo doesn’t send emails and instructs his staff to use BlackBerry PIN, which doesn’t leave a trail.
This is a much broader issue than Cuomo. Pro Publica found that as newsrooms are shrink, public relations jobs are exploding. This is happening in government, too. There are more communications staffers at Rochester’s City Hall than each local television newsroom has reporters on the street.
Politicians and their staffs are more emboldened than ever before. They now ask to edit their own quotes before they appear in print! More shockingly, reporters for major news organizations agree!
Government officials used to be far more accessible. Politicians now have to go through spokesmen. Department heads have to get permission from other department heads. Everyone has to go through everyone else to give us basic information.
My boss now occasionally gets calls or emails from government spokesmen to complain about the mildest of stories. There were never any factual problems. The issues involved the relevancy of the stories themselves. Ten years ago, that rarely happened.
Over the years, I saw the type of information control change in the Rochester City School District. Superintendent Cliff Janey had no communication strategy, other than to keep stuff secret. He was fired. Six years later, we got a superintendent who was brilliant at spin. Jean-Claude Brizard was rarely called out for his highly questionable statistics and decisions and his lack of transparency. He was promoted.
A main function of the press is to hold the government accountable. It’s essential to democracy. And it’s gotten harder.