The Job of Press Secretary really is About Plights & Pains

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Alagi Yorro Jallow

Why would a lamb find himself in the wolf land of politics and politicking? The Washington Post of 30, May 2014 described being a presidential spokesman as “the ultimate burnout job”. The job of government journalist or press secretary really is about plights and pains. It is not a job for the meek. It is a permanent, constant contention with spins, contra-spins and anti-spins. It is a pain no one wants to suffer twice.

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Ari Fleischer, US President George W. Bush’s first press secretary, captured the pains of the job very accurately: “The grueling part isn’t just the hours, which are bad, it’s that your mind never gets a rest. You’re always war gaming. It’s constant intellectual chess. You’re thinking of the next question that the press is going to ask, and that leads to the next question and the next question et cetera, et cetera.” Indeed, in US history, two press secretaries died on the job – both of heart attack, one right on his desk.

I do not know how many persons in government today wish to be exposed to the unfriendly, harsh realities of a media that does not take prisoners. When you work in government, all eyes, seen and unseen, are watching you. You must therefore choose what to say and what to write.
Defending any government anywhere is one of the most difficult jobs. You write and cancel words and write again. You query your every sentence and give answers to every unasked question before you push the information out.

It becomes particularly tricky and risky when the social media is the preferred channel. The social media is an agent of change. It is democracy bearing another name. That, ironically, makes it a forest of doves, lions, snakes and scorpions. The doves are very few and they do not stick out their fragile necks in defense of persons marked for online demolition. On the social media, warriors have no place in their heart to think of taking prisoners.

Experience in politics and government teaches better than the best teacher. For the journalist in government, every experience, no matter how unpleasant, enriches one’s appreciation of that thing called power and its demands. And it is not as if the system itself is appreciative of valiant efforts. It has a way of throwing the unwary to the dogs. It is the very home of treachery. But then, you become a better journalist only after going through the university of government appointment, especially if you are wise.

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Speaking for a president or a politician can be very enabling. It empowers and makes the unknown renowned. You do not leave the job and need any introduction anywhere again. You are either popular or notorious or a miserable mix of both. A White House press secretary said it was the best job he ever had, “and the best job that the people who are there now will ever have. If you like politics and policy and the news media and how they interact, you’ll have the most impact you’ll ever have in your career. You get this incredible view of history being made. And when the leader of the free world turns to you in a meeting and asks you, ‘What do you think?’ that’s pretty exciting.” Around here in the Gambia, you share the limelight with the big boss to the envy of powerful people around him. That is why a press secretary is as blessed (and endangered) as the boss. You announce appointments, sign sack statements, spinning and gaslighting. Your name is a household item and on the lips of every kid who watches television and listens to radio. But the glitz ends right there. If you are the unwary, unlucky type, you soon get knifed by power and powerful interests. When Ronald Reagan was shot, his press secretary got hit with him. He barely lived to tell the story. When that happens, you walk down the dusty road lonely, alone.
Journalists working for State House rarely show their frustrations with their colleagues’ operations. But they are government people hired to “manage” the media and spin. So how do they do that when they are blinded for months? Does the perception in there suggest that these two gentlemen are just like the journalist out there who cannot be wholly trusted with information? No government anywhere likes the press. But the job of the press, really, is to make governments uncomfortable. It is when the press and the government fail to share the same bed that the people can safely say goodnight and sleep.

Otherwise, the morning could see the people asking where their freedom is. President Richard Nixon was one of the most unfortunate with the media among US presidents. He routinely blamed the woes of his government on a media which he accused of “distorted, even disloyal reporting.” From asking his media handlers to “build a mythology” around his person, a mismanaged, defeated Nixon had to say in exasperation:

“Our worst enemies seem to be the press.” He was too conceited to know that he was his own worst enemy. The media merely assisted him. The man ended up a classroom example of a president firmly held accountable by a determined media.

A spokesperson’s problem does not start and end with the questions his colleagues ask him. In the Gambia, that is just a little jab in the head. Your major headache could really be the boss and the company he keeps. If the boss is good, he could be unfortunate to have hawks as friends. The mouthpiece is a dignified night soil man who clears the mess before the day breaks.

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When you do such for the system, fairness demands appreciation. But does it come at all? It depends on who the boss talks with. Manipulative friends around the boss kill the spokesperson’s spirit. These are men and women who know the media job more than anyone else. These ones pick holes regularly in the media engagements of their friend. They feed him regularly with what his press secretary did not do and what he over-did. It takes the lion hearted to keep going when these know-all behemoths bring their dirt. Now, how much of this has been lot? Joe Lockhart, another White House spokesman, once said that he knew he was doing his job well when everyone was mad at him.

“You walk into the briefing room and the reporters yell at you because you haven’t given them enough. And you walk into the next room and (government officials) are screaming at you for telling the press too much. That’s when you know you’ve hit the sweet spot.” Not everyone feels so. Many would wonder why take this thankless job in the first place.

Greater people in history experienced it. It made them better and immortal. Abraham Lincoln gave democracy its modern definition. He never had it easy with the media and media manipulators, the “dominant coalition.” But he didn’t shut himself in. On one occasion, he said after reading a series of attacks in some newspapers he asked himself:

“Abraham Lincoln, are you a man or a dog?” It was that bad, but his noble spirit took over and elevated him to a better leader.

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