Jeff Jardine: Modesto wants to spin media questions

04/12/2014 5:03 PM

04/12/2014 5:03 PM

Government officials are supposed to work for the taxpayers. They are expected to do the public’s business in public, providing access to facts and details that factor into the decision-making process.

But far too often, officials treat government as an exclusive club answerable to no one, including the people, and least of all the media that cover the agencies. And if members of the media already thought dealing with the city during Greg Nyhoff’s reign as city manager was like a bad case of shingles, it’s likely to get even worse.

The city in March distributed to employees what it calls a “Media Post & Share Process” for dealing with all media inquiries. Employees are instructed to note the questions reporters ask, write responses and then ship them to the city manager’s office for approval. Nothing like trusting your people to know their jobs and be accountable, right?

The answers must then receive the blessing of the propagandists on the sixth floor.

The process comes just as Nyhoff has announced he will leave Modesto for a similar position in Oxnard. A parting shot to this newspaper, which has time and time again exposed the city’s failings?

The purpose, the memo said, is to “publish full interviews or documents shared with the media. Tell the story from the City’s perspective, providing opportunity for complete communication directly with the community on newsworthy items. Provide a mechanism whereby all newsworthy media conversations/requests are reported or shared.”

Let me get this straight: The same city officials who frequently refused to respond to Modesto Bee reporters’ inquiries during the Stanislaus Community Assistance Project and Archway Commons fiascoes now are taking the high road and portraying themselves as victims? The same folks blamed the paper for the defeat of the Measure X sales tax increase and for exposing their lack of oversight that enabled the SCAP mess to happen. Yet in all of the stories written about SCAP and Archway, city officials never once called or came to The Bee to demand a correction or retraction because of an inaccuracy. Why, I ask, might that be?

Add the self-inflicted wounds from the ongoing Wood Colony/Salida annexation saga and the blatant lack of openness and public input for the courthouse site selection, and it’s been a pretty rough time for the city.

Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the time the city painted a free speech zone at the transportation center on Ninth Street, and then painted over it a day or so later after I wrote about it.

Rather than address the dysfunction at City Hall and handle the issues correctly in the first place, they decided that it’s easier to control the message and the timing. Remember TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union)? Let’s at least give the city’s propaganda arm its own acronym. Try MUDD, standing for Modesto Unilateral Department of Disinformation.

One other thing: A reporter, whether working for The Bee or one of the TV stations, takes the initiative to investigate, research and report a story. The amount of research might require several days or even weeks of reporting before the story is ready for publication or broadcast. But with a flick of a mouse, the city pre-empts the issue before all the facts emerge.

Does every question have to come with a copyright?

I do not conduct important interviews via email, period. Schedule them? Sure. But when it comes to the serious stuff, I want to hear the tone of a person’s voice during a response. It speaks volumes. So if they want to forward my questions upstairs, city employees had better be able to take copious notes, because I plan to ask questions in three languages, including Klingon.

The process document does read: “All entries will be placed on the city’s main web page under ‘Media Flash’ and automatically uploaded to Facebook and Twitter.”

That means every word of every inquiry. Hence, I’ll begin interviews with questions such as, “That rash cleared up yet?” Or “Was that you I saw driving a city vehicle home from the Tiki Lounge last night, say, midnight?”

Post those, city. Because if you don’t, I will. It’s all in the name of making sure we tell the entire story, from beginning to end. That’s what you want, right?

After all, they’re part of the interview. Real-time government-style journalism, coming to a social (disease) media near you.

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