Failure to communicate
City Hall's ban on staff members speaking to media leaves us all underserved
Published: September 7, 2011
News Hits is trying to understand. We also want to help.
What we're trying to understand is why Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and his administration are making it so difficult for journalists to obtain information in the fastest, most efficient way possible.
Because, the fact is, we here at the Metro Times have been experiencing a lot of difficulty getting timely answers to legitimate questions.
If it were just this paper having a problem, we wouldn't be dealing with the issue in print this way. But it's not just a matter of us being excluded from the administration's "A-list" when it comes to media priorities.
It is a problem that extends beyond just us. And the only conclusion we can reach is that the administration, and the "communications team" headed by Dan Lijana, are too anal-retentive for their own good.
Our message to them is, "Ease up a little and everybody — including you — will be the better for it."
At the heart of the matter is a directive issued by the mayor's Communications Office last year. It stipulates that "staff members" cannot respond to media inquiries, but instead must either "contact a Communications Team Member or take a message to have a Communications Team Member return the phone call."
Part of what's going on, we suspect, is the corporate mentality former businessman Bing has brought to his public sector job. But having a PR person handle the media at a place like Bing Steel is a much different thing than dealing with the daily flood of calls and e-mails from print, TV and radio reporters wanting immediate information on an incredibly wide range of issues.
Now, friction between a mayor and the press happens everywhere. And there's a particularly rich history of that conflict here in Detroit.
Former Mayor Coleman Young freely admitted in his autobiography Hard Stuff that, "I have stubbornly and purposefully withheld information from the media, inviting them to exercise their constitutional recourse and challenge my position with a lawsuit. ... The papers charge that I run the most uncooperative administration in the country, and I say, so be it."
There's no doubt an understandable reason why an administration might want to impose as much control over the information flow as possible.
"Cities are fighting for perception, so people stay there, new companies go there, housing prices stay constant," says Professor Corwin Smidt of Michigan State University's Political Science Department.
"If everybody talks to the media and gives all these different impressions," Smidt says, "in the end the city will look ineffective and dysfunctional."
It is equally dysfunctional, however, to constrict the flow of information so much it is reduced to slow trickle.
But there's also a workable middle ground. Certainly, in most cases, department heads should be astute enough to handle media questions regarding things their department is involved in. If they aren't, then they probably shouldn't be in that position.
Truly smart administrations figure out some equilibrium between wanting to put the best possible spin on coverage in the media and providing the public (via journalists) information that it has a right to.
In our experience, having covered a variety of mayoral administrations, there is a better approach than the one taken by Bing and crew.
Dan Cherrin says that when he was communications manager for then-Mayor Ken Cockrel, "All media requests came through me." He would then decide who should respond to the request, be it a deputy or department head, Cherrin himself, or the mayor.
There was not, however, any directive explicitly forbidding city employees from speaking to the media.
That approach, though still not ideal from the perspective of a reporter, makes infinitely more sense than the tack being taken by the Bing administration.
Why's that? Because the Bing dictum creates a total choke point. We pose questions to Lijana, who then has to go to the appropriate department head, or whoever, to get an answer. Lijana then gets back to us. Maybe. And if he does respond with info, there are likely follow-up questions that need to be asked, which takes more time and adds to the potential for confusion.
It's cumbersome, time-consuming and inefficient for all involved.
But Bing and the constantly revolving cast of characters around him have often shown a profound lack of acumen when it comes to dealing with reporters. That, at least in part, could well stem from the noticeable lack of actual journalism experience on the part of those who've been hired to serve on his communications team.
A prime example of this came last year when the administration took the unprecedented step of relocating the press' City Hall bureau to the basement of the Coleman A. Young Building. It wasn't just that reporters bristled at being banished to the basement because our vanity was bruised; beat reporters can learn a lot just by watching who is coming and going over there on the 11th floor.
> Email Curt Guyette