I have a friend, a very good friend, who is basically a spokesman for a politician. A lot of people in journalism have friends in that line of work. It’s an occupational hazard. The list of reformed reporters who turn up on the payrolls of elected officials used to be pretty lengthy and there are still a few. They do so once they get married, have kids and figure out they had to make a real living doing something they vaguely know how to do and that won’t make them physically ill.
So a few shift careers into public relations of one kind or another. A few move into the world of politics. It’s an uncomfortable fit at first, but they make it work. It helps if they believe in the party or politician they represent.
That’s the part that would give me a problem by the way.
So some political spokesmen and women got there by way of a newspaper job or even a TV job. Certainly not all of them do, but a few. These days, it seems, it’s more like a handful.
I never hold it against them because, well, folks gotta do what they gotta do. And besides — and I’m probably a little biased on this subject — the best political spokespersons tend to be the ones with newspaper experience. They understand what’s news and what’s crap and they’re in the main still pretty damn good writers. They also understand deadlines.
People in politics used to seek out such people, sometimes as they campaigned from place to place. Back in the day a politician might gauge whether a reporter could correctly knot a tie, if his hair had seen a comb in a month or so and if he could write a story without a major factual error and then offer that reporter a job a month or so later.
Today, though, fewer journalists seem to be in this particular line of work. I say this because so little of substance seems to ooze from the greasy and dark corners of political operations these days. The press releases I see from campaigns or parties usually seize upon whatever gaffe, misstatement, or out-of-context controversy the opposing candidate or party might have uttered or stirred within the past 24 hours.
A reader got me thinking about this subject first thing Wednesday morning. Here’s what he wrote to me.
“Nobody cares about a response from a ‘spokesperson’ for the Romney campaign or the Obama campaign. Such a spokesperson is simply a person in an office or a room somewhere whose job it is to quickly compose a snarky response to something said by the other party. It’s the most predictable thing in the entire universe. Why do journalists seek response from these spokespeople? They add nothing to the conversation or to the informative process. This is one journalistic convention that needs to go by the wayside. If the candidate himself or herself has some response, great. Otherwise, leave it be.”
I have to agree. The roles of reporter and politician have changed over the past two decades, and not for the better.
Once upon a time, politicians interacted regularly with reporters. The press could ask questions and get extemporaneous answers on a wide variety of subjects. In some instances, reporters could call up members of Congress in the middle of night for a quote.
Today, sadly, reporters largely interact with spokespersons who often craft carefully worded and evasive statements for the cocooned candidate or party they represent — and that’s when they answer questions at all. Usually campaign offices simply send out misleading and wiseass statements about the opposition. The candidates or elected official today has staffers hired by taxpayers or the parties to fuel websites or make social media posts in the name of the candidate. Does anyone really believe, for example, that President Obama or Governor Romney actually handle tweeting themselves?
I’ve seen enough episodes of “West Wing” to know that politicians usually don’t speak or write for public consumption. Today they have writers on staff prepared to “craft a message” in order to “stay on point.” I get press releases all the time from office holders with statements in set off in quotes. I have no confidence that the politicians actually said these things themselves.
Still, reporters continue to play out this farce because journalism demands an obligation to get the other side when reporting news. It’s a perfunctory part of the job. The response is equally predictable.
And, as Woody Allen once said of a legal proceeding in the film “Bananas,” “it’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham.”