Public Officials and the Media
When should public officials talk to reporters? From The Alexandria Times, July 7, 2022
When should public officials refrain from talking to the media? The answer seems to be in the eye of the officeholder. Some Alexandria elected officials decline to talk to the media, but others have publicly reserved the right to talk to the press about any issue.
Admonitions or mandates that officeholders not to talk to the media contradict the natural order of things: fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, politicos gotta talk. People who seek public office are also usually competitive – you need the most votes to win – and, in varying degrees, ego-driven. The media spotlight has its gratifications for those on whom it shines.
Even so, the concern about elected officials talking to the media continues. The School Board’s Operating Procedures state:
School Board Members retain the right to speak to the media as individuals, but must understand that any comment will likely be interpreted by the public as an official statement of the Board. In speaking as individuals, School Board Members may respond to questions related to their individual position on an issue, but must clearly indicate that they are speaking for themselves and not on behalf of the Division or the Board. Examples of individual position issues include: 1. The Board Member’s vote on a particular motion; and 2. The Board Member’s campaign positions. In addition, School Board Members speaking to the media as individuals should remind the media representative(s) that official statements of the School Board are only made by the Board Chair. Board Members will then notify the Board Chair and Superintendent of their media statement.
The presumption that “any comment will likely be interpreted by the public as an official statement of the Board” does not give the public the credit it deserves. Moreover, no such presumption attaches to members of the City Council or the General Assembly. Congressional leaders do not preclude members of Congress from talking to the press. This may be implicit recognition that talking to the media is all that many in Congress are capable of doing.
Another justification for asking elected officials, particularly those recently elected, not to speak with the press is that talking to reporters involves special expertise. The argument is that not just experience, but also extensive training by pricey consultants, is required before an elected official is prepared to address the media. This gives reporters more credit than they deserve. About Alexandria is offering another of its lavish rewards to anyone who can distinguish media training curricula from basic common sense.
Press accounts of efforts to prevent public officials from talking to the media also raise this question: “What are these people hiding?” There is enough uncertainty and suspicion in our public affairs without creating more by mandating that officeholders refrain talking to the media.
Elected officials have responsibilities when it comes to the media. Certain topics – notably pertaining to lawsuits and personnel – are not appropriate for discussion in the media. However, if an elected official opines on the merits of an issue, as distinct from discussing the merits of a person or group, it is difficult to see how things can go seriously wrong.
The essential truth is that he or she who controls the information flow has vast advantages at the intersection of the media and public affairs. Elected officials can and do choose what to say and how to say it or even have wily media relations personnel speak for them.
The media is a reactive institution – it operates on the basis of what it has been told or can find out. It is only when the media reacts by pointing out inconsistencies, half-truths or worse, lies, that difficulties arise for officeholders.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@ gmail.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https:// aboutalexandria.substack.com/
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