J.H. Snider’s testimony before the Anne Arundel County Council on May 18, 2015
At the public hearings on May 6 and 11, you heard much testimony regarding what should be added to the Anne Arundel County Public Schools’ budget. I would like to recommend an item for deletion: the position of the head of the AACPS Public Information Office, which costs taxpayers more than $200,000/year. Please note that I’m not recommending this cut because I believe that individual isn’t doing his job. On the contrary, I’m recommending it because I believe that individual is doing his job very well. The problem is the job, not the individual.
What have been the effects of having this AACPS PR position? First, the PR spokesman too often speaks on behalf of school board members. The public would be much better informed about AACPS if school board members spoke on behalf of themselves.
Second, all public requests for information that could conceivably be controversial get channeled through the PR office. This makes public participation incredibly inefficient and intimidating, which also harms local watchdog journalism. For example, I used to be able to ask for a copy of an AACPS report from the person who wrote the report. Now I have to go through an insane and intimidating process to get the same report via the PR office.
Third, funneling all requests for information through a PR official makes local education reporters improperly dependent on that person for their livelihood and results in that PR official almost always getting the last word in newspaper articles on any controversial issue. No rational reporter will alienate a source on whom their livelihood depends. This type of problem is aggravated for a non-partisan public body such as our Board of Education because by their nature such bodies already lack competing sources of official information. Empowering a PR official in this information environment merely adds fuel to this fire.
Fourth, a position like this creates very unfortunate revolving door incentives between reporters and the government officials they cover. Jack Abramoff, arguably America’s most famous lobbyist, said that he could own a congressional office as soon as he said to a top staffer “You know, when you’re done working on the Hill, we’d very much like you to consider working for us.” The current AACPS PR official was hired after working for the leading local newspaper in our county. It harms the journalistic integrity of reporters if they hope they might one day get a top PR job from AACPS, including a fourfold increase in pay and more job security. Eliminating this PR position would eliminate that temptation.
Fifth, it is outrageously expensive to charge the public $75/hour for that PR official to provide the public with documents in response to Public Information Act requests. Most of those documents should either be posted online already, thus making a Public Information Act request unnecessary, or redacted by an entry level employee earning far less. Moreover, PR officials should not be put in charge of complying with public-right-to-know laws because doing so creates a blatant conflict of interest and functions to intimidate the public from seeking the public records necessary to hold their government officials accountable.
Sixth, AACPS is using that official to write press releases that are later reprinted by the press as news articles, albeit usually at least slightly rewritten by local reporters. Such government press subsidies endanger First Amendment values because they create improper press dependencies, which are especially problematical when there is a monopoly local newspaper such as in Anne Arundel County. That newspaper is highly profitable and until recently was owned by a multi-billionaire who, according to Forbes, was one of the 400 wealthiest Americans. That newspaper doesn’t need government subsidies to pay for the education news it sells.
In summary, I’d encourage you to zero out this PR position. The money would be much better spent for other educational priorities. If you would like an authoritative backup for some of the problematical incentives described here, I’d encourage you to read the Society of Professional Journalists’ report: Mediated Access: Education Writers’ Perceptions of Public Information Officers’ Media Control Efforts. It reports the finding of a survey of journalists who cover education and are members of the Education Writers Association.
If any of you would like a copy of this testimony, you can find it online at elighthouse.info.
Select Resources & Quotes
Kathryn Foxhall has compiled a collection of resources on public information office obstruction of investigative reporting.
More than 40 journalism groups urge president to stop excessive controls on public information, Society of Professional Journalists press release, July 8, 2014.
“We consider these restrictions a form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”
The Capital endorsed this letter in an editorial but apparently didn’t see any connection to AACPS information practices:
“The president has frequently complained about the rise of a cynicism toward government, apparently without suspecting that the government’s own “politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies,” as the letter puts it, may be a factor .
This letter from leading journalistic organizations gives Obama simple ways to cut down on that cynicism – if he’s interested.”
When Censorship Becomes a Cultural Norm, Editor & Publisher, May 16, 2014 (regarding public information officers at Federal agencies):
“The last thing anybody should want is for any employee to be warned to never talk to the press, or never to talk without guards…. PR office censorship is now prevalent in many areas of the country…. Education reporters from several states just laughed at the question, indicating they were being stopped at every turn. Some school districts produce policies saying only the top people in the schools can talk to the press. Another survey by Carlson, this one of education reporters, found that 6 in 10 think the controls over who they talk to amount to government censorship…. And now we have schools telling employees to never talk to a reporter…. No one should have to live in a community where staffs in government, police, schools or hospitals are afraid to get to know reporters or tip them off about anything.”
Sunshine Week 2014: Two new studies released, Sunshine Week 2014, March 15-21, 2014.
“[The Society of Professional Journalists] joined with the Education Writers Association to focus on the nation’s education reporters. Journalists indicated that public information officers often require pre-approval for interviews, decide whom reporters get to interview and often monitor interviews. Sometimes they will prohibit interviews altogether. Education writers overwhelmingly agreed with the statement that ‘the public was not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.’”
Source: Snider, J.H., The position of chief “PR officer” should be cut from the AACPS budget, Anne Arundel Patch, May 19, 2015.