No comment: The verbal paralysis of public officials

Today's public information officer
Getting information from a taxpayer-funded public information officer can be like talking to one of these.

President Richard Nixon:  No reporter from the Washington Post is ever to be in the White House again. And no photographer either. No photographer. Is that clear? None ever to be in. Now that is a total order and if necessary I’ll fire you. You understand?

Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler: I do understand.

Nixon: Okay. All right. Good. Thank you. -December 11, 1972

 

The normally vocal Steve Sisolak stood silent, cocking his head in the direction of his campaign spokeswoman, like a gaffe-prone husband, admonished by his wife to keep his mouth shut and not answer the question.  It’s just one of many times this campaign cycle that the Clark County Commissioner and Democratic candidate for governor has been uncharacteristically silent, declining to comment, even through a spokesperson, about a variety of topics weighing on the state.      

Sisolak is far from alone, in fact, he’s far more accessible than many other elected officials, who increasingly hide from journalists, be it behind a campaign spokesperson or a taxpayer-paid public information officer.  

Sisolak’s Republican foe in the race for governor, Attorney General Adam Laxalt, will not respond to any requests for comment from the Current, via his campaign or his publicly funded Communications Director, Monica Moazez, who earned $88,146 in 2017, according to Transparent Nevada, a website that lists salaries of government employees in Nevada.

It’s not just Laxalt. U.S. Senator Dean Heller and his communication staff routinely fail to respond to inquiries from Nevada media. Heller’s Communications Director Megan Taylor earns $115,809 a year and his press secretary, Gretchen Andersen, earns $80,721, according to U.S. Senate records.

The Current asked Heller, via a spokesperson of course, if he thinks it’s appropriate to have taxpayer-paid staffers selectively respond to reporters. Heller declined to answer the question on the record, but in a statement, Taylor said “In the past two months alone, Senator Heller has spoken to nearly 30 reporters in Nevada on issues ranging from securing funding for wildfire prevention efforts to keeping nuclear waste out of the state.”

But even on a subject like nuclear waste, the senator’s office can be less than forthcoming. When asked recently by the Reno Gazette-Journal about a Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh ruling that helped keep the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project alive, “the senator’s office did not answer the Reno Gazette-Journal’s questions.”

It’s not just a Nevada phenomenon. Nationwide, the public’s access to the officials they vote into office is increasingly being cut off by an army of highly paid “PIOs” – public information officers – paid too often to do the bidding of their bosses, rather than the public that employs them. 

Elected officials often refuse to accept phone calls or do an interview without first being briefed by a PIO who attempts to discern the reporter’s line of questioning and sometimes prepare the official with answers.

The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) has a name for it – “Censorship by PIO.” 

The elusive nature of the public official, coupled with the curtailed release of records, charging for public records, the erosion of whistleblower protections, pronouncements of “fake news” from the White House and even banning disfavored reporters from press events, all combine to threaten the ability of journalists to hold officials accountable.  

“Over the last 25 years or so there has been a relatively rapid trend toward prohibiting staff members from communicating to journalists without reporting to some authority, often public information officers,” the SPJ says on its website.  “The restrictions have become, in great part, a cultural norm in the United States. They also have become an effective form of censorship by which powerful entities keep the public ignorant about what impacts them.”

In an ideal world, Press Secretary Ron Ziegler would have reminded Richard Nixon that taxpayers, not the president, paid Ziegler’s salary, whose allegiance as a public servant was to the public.  But in the real world, Ziegler and countless other communications directors and press secretaries comply with the boss’s directive, even if it means blacklisting a journalist, a la the Trump administration last week banning CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins from a press event, presumably because the administration didn’t like her questions.

While campaign press secretaries have the prerogative to play favorites with reporters, shouldn’t publicly-funded information officers respond similarly to all news media?

Some government agencies are known for the lack of communication from communication staff.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson is selective in his interviews as is Metro Sheriff Joe Lombardo. A few years ago, the city of Henderson decreed that city employees could be fired for speaking with the press.

A survey conducted by the SPJ found that 40 percent of public information officers admit to throwing up roadblocks to specific reporters because of perceived problems with previous stories.  

The Current has reached out to Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s official office — not his campaign office — on at least ten occasions. Laxalt’s Communications Director, Monica Moazez, replied to email inquiries on May 9 regarding the office’s involvement in sex trafficking cases, but stopped responding when the Current submitted questions regarding the AG’s potential conflict of interest in a case involving the former pimp of the daughter of Laxalt’s chief investigator.

On June 18 the Current submitted an inquiry to Laxalt’s office about immigrant families being separated at the border.  There was no response.

On July 2 and 5 the Current asked Laxalt’s office about its knowledge of the FBI’s four-year-long investigation into Metro’s vice unit. There was no response.

On July 6 the Current inquired about Laxalt’s support for the death penalty and how he reconciled it with his pro-life position. Additionally, the Current asked Laxalt if he knew of instances in which the death penalty offered closure for survivors. Again, there was no response.

On July 11 the Current emailed to ask if Laxalt favored another method for killing inmates scheduled to be executed by the state. Laxalt’s office did not respond.

On July 17 the Current asked Laxalt via his spokeswoman about his efforts in 2015 to change a law that makes it difficult to prosecute sexual offenders who victimize babies or others who are unable to corroborate the attack.  We have received no response.

On July 26 we inquired about Laxalt’s record of prosecuting perpetrators of wage theft.  We received no response.

Monday, after emailing Laxalt’s communications director who did not respond, the AG’s personal assistant took the Current’s call after we notified the AG’s office we were doing a story about the office’s refusal to respond to inquiries. She promised a return call from someone on staff.  

We did not hear back.

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Ms. Gentry,
    Your issues with the local elected officials have, unfortunately, become almost commonplace. I salute you for making sure your readers are aware that you are TRYING to get the information to them but it’s their elected officials who are refusing to communicate. I am the author of the SPJ survey you cited. It is one of seven conducted over a six-year period with various groups of PIOs and reporters. They all confirmed that this is a growing and serious problem throughout the country. It’s most prevalent in Washington, but state and local officials see their national counterparts stonewalling the media and forbidding their subordinates from talking to the press, and they think ‘if they can do it, so can we”. If any of your readers want further fact-based evidence, they can go to https://www.spj.org/pios.asp. This is not a partisan problem, either. The surveys were taken during the Obama administration, although the problem continues under Trump. Thank you for alerting the public to this issue.
    Dr. Carlson, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA

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