Relationships 101

By Published On: May 14, 2005

In those early years of marital bliss, it took me awhile to catch on when my spouse was peeved with me. During those rare times, there were no outbursts. Instead, his sentiments were conveyed via a frosty silence or a tense whistle. As the years progressed, I became more attuned to temperature and whistle variations. I’d say more quickly and forcefully, “Would you tell me what is wrong?” He would remain tight-lipped. I’d point out how it was a wee bit challenging to resolve a matter of which I was uninformed. He’d then start to say what needed to be said. Relationships-be they personal or professional-live and die on communication or lack thereof. Healthy and open debate about issues that affect our lives in small and large ways is essential. It is also a cornerstone of democracy. When we fail to zealously guard our freedom-of-information rights, there is an outbreak of fake news and fake reporters. One recent example is male escort Jeff Gannon, a supposed White House correspondent, who was little known but favored by the president. In addition, the Department of Agriculture, the Office of National Drug Policy, and the Health and Human Services Department’s Medicare Center sent videos to news outlets with pretend reporters who touted the Bush administration party line. The Governator’s own state-paid “news” video became the subject of a new bill to stop the practice of using state funds to advance party politics. The Government Accountability Office has condemned the practice, with the GAO managing associate general counsel telling a U.S. Senate committee this week that the Bush administration violated anti-propaganda rules. Seems those in power have taken to heart the words of a liberal news radio announcer, Scoop Nisker, whose tag line is “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” Because we live and die on our credibility, we here at Circuit strive for thoughtful and robust debates. We work to provide our readers substance, not spin, but the information highway keeps getting jammed with barricades. We get around them as best we can because any proposal-be it policy on fuel development (solar, liquefied natural gas, and/or coal), a decision regarding new power deals, legislation to loosen standards, a merger, or changes to funding schemes-should be put to the test. Meaningful public debate on issues helps separate the wheat from the chaff. Reporters and editors can help stimulate needed debates. Yet our efforts are made far more challenging by agencies and companies unwilling to provide substantive comments. Recently, for example, Edison set me up with some executives who wanted to bend my ear on the utility’s recent request for offers for new electric supplies-noting at the last minute that the conversation was off the record. Well, that sure didn’t do much to publicly air their side of the debate. To set the record straight, we use unnamed sources when writing about controversial issues when it is the only way to get critical information. But we try to limit anonymous attribution because questions inevitably arise about veracity and accuracy. Also, the messenger becomes the focal point instead of the message. In one of the odder twists, we have been asked by public relations people a few times to attribute the information provided by someone in the agency or company to a completely different person. We also have been asked by spokespeople not to name them as the source of information. In discussions I have had with dozens of journalists from media both large and small, many refuse to talk with agencies and companies that insist conversations be off the record or spokespeople anonymous. Putting conditions on access to information will not serve you well and limits your ability to get your message out. There is, of course, an inherent tension between the role of reporter-which is to uncover, reveal, and report real information that affects people-and businesses and government. Spokespeople, on the other hand, often seek to spin the message to put their organizations in the best light. That said, there is also a wide variation among PR types. There are those who hinder and block access to those who are in the know, who give us headaches. We wonder, are they micromanagers, do they fear the truth or forget our distinct and independent roles? There are also those flacks who make our day and provide invaluable assistance to reporters, opening needed doors. Sure, it may be faster and less contentious to keep information under wraps, but it will come back to bite you. For example, an LNG developer fails to reveal the cost of safeguarding ships carrying imported frozen natural gas against terrorists or pirates to increase the odds of a terminal getting approved. Later, when the security tab comes due, it could come out of the company’s or its shareholders’ profits. Unless we are able to extract the “dis” from “information”, we all lose. The public’s and press’s right to information about decisions affecting the power industry-which affects pocketbooks, our environment, and other quality-of-life attributes-also provides needed checks and balances. Think about California’s deregulation law fiasco. The highly complex AB 1890 was rammed through the Legislature. Think about the $42 billion power contracts on which Governor Gray Davis insisted, at which ratepayer and environmental representatives, as well as the public, were not given a peek until those costly deals were signed. Think of the surge in California Public Utilities Commission alternate rulings that are adopted, including the $8 billion PG&E bankruptcy decision. These alternate proposals, adoption of which is becoming the norm and not the rule, are not fully vetted. They have a curtailed public review period, which is two-thirds shorter than that for proposed decisions. Think Vice-President Dick Cheney’s secret meetings to develop the nation’s energy policy, which remains tangled in litigation. Despite others’ penchant for secrecy, our goal is to report the news as accurately and fairly as possible. If we get our facts correct, give opposing parties the opportunity to comment on criticism, but irritate or infuriate different stakeholders at different times, we must be doing something right. We consider ourselves equal-opportunity bashers. However, when I get that chilly reception at home or hear the tight-lipped whistle, it doesn’t exactly make my day. Hearing what needs to be said is not comfortable. But we both know that nondisclosure means someone ends up sleeping on the couch and it’s a far more risky proposition.

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