Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Writing about public administration and the media

Posted by David Kassel on December 4, 2007

The November issue of PA Times  has a special section on public administration and the media, and the four articles that comprise the section are a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

First up is a rather disjointed article by Caroline Westerhof, which appears to be about the roles of presidential press secretaries.  It contains some slightly off-balance metaphors, such as this one: the media and public administration “are entwined as the spine is to the body.”  Which is the spine and which is the body in this case?

And the piece has some real head-scratchers, such as:

The media is an arm of the public sector, driven by the private sector, within a framework of public policies.

The media is an “arm of the public sector…?”  Well, that certainly leads nicely into the second article, “Skipping the Middle Man with a Governmental E-News Site,” by Mordecai Lee. 

Lee sets up his argument with the correct, if now fairly well-worn, observation that news coverage of government is shrinking and fewer and fewer reporters have government-oriented beats.  When the media spotlight does shine on government, he says, it is for all the wrong reasons: cheap-shot stories about bureaucrats and red tape, and “all manner of waste-fraud-and-abuse stories,”  all of which play into Americans’s natural tendency to distrust government.

It’s a fair criticism, but Lee’s solution seems somewhat limited to me.  He suggests that government at all levels take its news directly to the people by establishing “E-News sites” that would “operate like the homepage of a daily newspaper, containing stories of broad interest…”  Agencies would be invited to contribute stories ranging from health advisories to reports on highway conditions to new hunting regulations.

All fine and good, but this is hardly going to fill the growing gap left by the declining media coverage of government.  Lee acknowledges that:

The key for this concept to work would be to resist…the desire of the chief executive officials (whether governor, mayor or county executive) to turn the site into a “look what a great job I’m doing” site.

Yes, it’s hard to imagine a Pentagon E-News site breaking the Abu Ghraib or the Walter Reed Army Medical Center stories.

Next up, Judi Haberkorn makes some incisive points in her continuation of the discussion about declining media coverage of substantive issues.  She notes that TV news media, in particular, has shown little interest in education, the envrionment and health care, “unless of course, you think that Viagra and cosmetic surgery are all one needs to survive.”   Haberkorn doesn’t try to offer any solutions, other than to suggest that the public keep a watchful eye on the media ownership debates occurring at the FCC.

Finally, in “Latinos, the Media and Public Administration,”  Tony Carrizales decries the lack of understanding and recognition that both the media and public administrators have shown of the diversity of U.S. Latinos.  It seems a fair point to make that in coverage of immigration policy, in particular, the media often fail to recognize that recent immigrants come from more than 20 Latin American countries.  These immigrants have sought entry into the U.S. in recent decades, he notes, not only for economic opportunity, but to escape oppressive political regimes.

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2 Responses to “Writing about public administration and the media”

  1. Ben Clark said

    Not such a big fan of the idea of a Federal News Organization of really any sort. The State Department has a blog, Dipnote, that seems to be an attempt to “connect” withe people without the filters of the mainstream media. Mostly it is just very light commentary, probably filtered, re-filtered, and filtered again by DoS handlers. In the end you really know very little about what they are doing beyond what they had for breakfast that day.

    So cutting out the middle man… I’m not liking that so much. Communicate to us, please please please, but don’t try and BE the media.

  2. I agree, Ben. There’s always going to be a built-in conflict of interest in having an agency report on itself. I understand Mordecai Lee’s frustration in watching the media lose interest in government, and I have no problem in having agencies get their messages out directly to the public via the Internet. But making a government E-site look like a newspaper implies that you are somehow replacing the media as an objective news source on the agency, which simply can’t be done. I think the gap in government news coverage may ultimately have to be filled by bloggers. But that brings along its own set of problems and issues.

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