“Two-Tiered Structures” and Relationship Building: An Exploration of the Changing Role of the Press Secretary in the Information Age
By: Addie Thompson
There is no denying it: the mechanisms by which information is produced, regulated and disseminated have drastically changed throughout the years, especially in an information age of such technological surges and advancement that mere printed news is considered antiquated. Along with the development of the web space has come an alteration in the way we as news consumers absorb the news. Reading the actual newspaper happens less and less, while online publications and blogs with abbreviated articles have become increasingly popular, as have the pithy, sleek news videos that accompany them. In the interest of continuing to be informed out the world around us, global society with access to the Internet has transitioned into a culture of more passive information consumption (from blogs, videos, TED talks, etc) from a wide variety of sources.
With the initial introduction of smaller, more homegrown media sources, media took the shape of a “two-tiered structure” (Massing, 2004: v). Dissenting opinions that ran rampant in the lower tier (rife with blogs, niche publications and informal media) rarely were acknowledged at the upper tier, which often tried to target a larger, mainstream audience with fact-based reporting. But recently we’ve also seen this change; we have to consult these lower tier publications to get a complete take of current news, due in large part to the fact that major media outlets have become more politicized than ever. As recent class guest and former Press Secretary to the Obama Administration, P.J. Crowley, put it, “all of a sudden, we as a society choose our politics, then we choose our media” (Dee, 2012: 1). His insight calls into question the changing face of media, and thus the drastic and seemingly irreversible changes his former position has undergone in recent years.
The role of the Press Secretary is and has always been complex. Traditionally known as the formal, external link between the White House administration and the general press, there has historically been a great deal of responsibility imbued into this position. As the relationship between the press and the government has grown stronger throughout time, so has the position become increasingly vital to government affairs, both foreign and domestic. The Press Secretary needs not only to be deeply in tune with the pulse of the administration and the reasoning behind every political decision, but also well-versed in the ways in which the press formally and informally functions, including the importance of pressing deadlines, personal motivations and industry competition. This vital linkage between government and media is a precarious area in which to work, as it means constant attention to the message of an administration in context to a sometimes hostile press environment. Knowledge of government proceedings may come second even to an awareness of public perception of the President, or the approval ratings for Presidential decisions. The Press Secretary has to be aware that they do not in fact craft public opinion; rather, in this day and age, it is the news sources that do this.
With the change of the face of news and the proliferation of media sources, the role of the Press Secretary has become that much more complicated. Michael Massing, author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq, speculates that an external government role (such as Crowley’s) has “becom[e] not so much a conveyor of straightforward information, and certainly not a seeker of truth, but a well-managed, -programmed and –funded polemicist whose charge is to ‘stay on message’” and in this way “all too many government officials have become salespeople” (Massing, 2004: xvi). Crowley himself drew attention to the idea that each administration has a different relationship with the press, as does each Press Secretary. The very important and very delicate government-press relationship is thus in many ways curated by this essential, externally-facing role.
Information flow has become multi-faceted, and no longer does official White House information always come from the Press Secretary him or herself (take the WikiLeaks incident in early 2011, about which Crowley became famous for running his mouth). There are organically and digitally viral rumors that reproduce and swirl at lightening speeds in grassroots networks (found in the “lower tier”) that the Press Secretary then has the challenge of addressing through the “upper tier” of media, in hopes that the intended message will trickle down to the second level of information flow, which is constantly increasing in size and scope. But this trickle-down is never certain, which is probably why Obama himself has started taking questions from popular entertainment magazines (Tapper, 2012) and why current press secretary Robert Gibbs has started doing the “First Question” series based on questions submitted from the public via social media (mainly, Twitter). These Q&A sessions have been broadcast via webcam for a sort of personal press conference effect. The Press Secretary role has become more public-focused, in light of a vibrant lower tier, in order to break through the layers of arguably elitist news sources of the upper tier that can alter information in the interest of making it more palatable.
Crowley mentioned in his visit that it is as important to have an informed citizenry as it is to have an informed government. So what exactly is the role of the Press Secretary in making sure this happens, especially in our digital age where more information is present than one can fully consume? We have the problem of gaining access to information for many people around the world; in some locations, it is a challenge even to find Internet to engage with broader political discussions. But then we have the issue of too much news and not enough interest, where many people don’t WANT to consume everything that is available for them to consume. In that case, how can media sources and information narratives ensure they secure themselves in the dominant position? At what point does a public stop consuming and start, instead, producing their own opinions and insights? It is hard enough to ideate how a media outlet stays at the top of the industry and thus at the forefront of major discourse. How does government manage, then, to get a word in with all this noise?
“Media is the one institution we have that is necessary to hold government to account,” says Crowley (Dee, 2012: 1). As illustrated in both Now They Tell Us and “Why We Fight” (directed by Eugene Jarecki), a large enough investigation of government activities around “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was never successfully conducted, and thus resulted in our government changing its mission and message over years of time. Sure, a democratic government needs to be held accountable to its people, and the media provides the opportunity for information dissemination such that the public has the ability to hold them accountable. But who holds the media accountable? It could be that media sources keep each other in check, or that the lower tier keeps tabs on the upper tier by putting them in their place. But these are all internal checks, media keeping tabs on media. Who is externally providing the check media sometimes so desperately needs? It is in journalists’ best interest to provide factually accurate representations of news and current events, but it is also important to stay afloat in the current new climate, using intrigue and flavor to create a buzz-worthy news story. The book The News Media, Civil War and Humanitarian Action asks, “is the role of media to inform or entertain?” (Minear et al., 1996: 4). It may be a bit of both.
A responsible government is one that is accountable to its citizens, and no one knows this better than Crowley or Gibbs: liaising with the press means communicating with the public. But in the age of technology where information runs rampant and it is harder to control government narrative and messaging, the role of the Press Secretary has taken a new form. No longer can he or she rely on practiced messaging and formal diction. Instead, the Press Secretary role has become necessarily more nimble, able to speak to a variety of types of media sources with sincerity and a willingness for open communication. Watch or listen to any press conference today (like the ones shown in Ted Bogosian’s film “The Press Secretary”) and it is immediately clear that journalists are relentless and often excessive in their pursuit of truth. More and more, people have firsthand access to information, and with the access comes inevitable feedback and opportunities for verbal attacks on the administration.
In our current times, the role of the Press Secretary needs to focus on relationship building. It is impossible to simply act as a passive, defensive government figurehead; it is time to actively engage with audiences of all types. Why ignore the lower tier of media especially with its size, intellectual rigor and collection of public opinion? The current administration’s ability to engage with the public on new levels has innovated the way government communications are conducted. It challenges the idea of traditional “news outlets” as the middlemen. It brings to question the need for the conventional publications industry at all. By adding directly to the lower tier with video blogs and Twitter chats, government figures like Gibbs are not skirting their accountability to the press, but rather making themselves accountable to a new and more widespread population.
Massing, Michael (2004). Now They Tell Us. New York, NY: New York Review of Books.
Larry Minear, et al. (1996). The News Media, Civil War and Humanitarian Action. Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Dee, Gabrielle (November15, 2012). Past State spokesman talks media, messaging. Brown Daily Herald.
Tapper, Jake (August 16, 2012). President Obama Takes Questions from People Mag, Entertainment Tonight, Disses White House Press Corps. ABC News.