THE GOVERNMENT/PRESS CONNECTION: Press Officers and Their Offices by Stephen Hess
Kirkus Star

THE GOVERNMENT/PRESS CONNECTION: Press Officers and Their Offices

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Brookings Institution's Hess follows up his highly-regarded 1981 study, The Washington Reporters, with a similar descriptive analysis of government press operations--finding neither the incompetence nor the manipulation commonly charged. What makes Hess refreshing, however, is that he hasn't amassed information or prepared a case. From a recent year in the press offices of five federal agencies (the State and Defense Departments, the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Transportation, and the White House), he comments, almost conversationally, on all sorts of issues and topics. Often, he punctures certainties: no single background or set of traits makes for effectiveness; career press officers aren't out to subvert politically-appointed press secretaries; regardless of their size or organization, press offices perform ""the same duties in a similar manner."" He's a skilled interpreter: what reporters mean by ""evenhanded"" is not that all will be treated alike, but that there'll be equity among equals. A canny discussion of acceptable and unacceptable lying points out that ""It is by unraveling the half truths that reporters display their professional skill; consequently, they too have a vested interest in maintaining this system."" (And the more press secretaries are insiders, paradoxically, the more opportunity they have to manipulate the news.) Hess' detail on career press officers presents them as generally capable and relatively powerless; his tally of how they spend their time finds them devoting a mere 25 percent to ""staging events or initiating material even as innocuous as handouts."" (Mostly they keep informed and answer questions.) A discussion of crises--the Potomac plane crash and Grenada--concludes that press officers perform best in accidental crises. . . ""because they cannot be excluded from advance planning."" (Press exclusion from Grenada is faulted on various scores.) An important review of leaks, incident by incident, draws some of the book's most undoctrinaire conclusions: leaks aren't necessarily in the public interest (or to government disadvantage); they occur erratically, and are mostly misinterpreted or garbled. One can have stronger feelings than Hess on some of the issues--and still welcome his calm as a tonic. Most news management, he reflects at the close, is merely a variation ""of shouting good news and whispering bad news.

Pub Date: Sept. 12th, 1984
Publisher: Brookings Institution