No Call Back? Columnist Goes Nuclear
Ordway’s odd way: The late Bob Ganley knew how to deal with reporters and columnists with whom he disagreed. Ganley, Portland’s city manager from 1986 until his unexpected death in 2000, called up the errant journalists or confronted them face to face, and told them exactly why he didn’t like what they’d written.
Then, he got over it.
Ganley didn’t freeze them out. He didn’t refuse to talk. He correctly concluded that starting a feud with the people who covered him regularly was not just pointless, but to his detriment. He didn’t want a slew of stories that said, “The city manger could not be reached for comment” or “Ganley did not respond to requests for an interview.” He wanted his positions in the media – and in his words if possible.
That approach paid off for Ganley, who enjoyed generally positive coverage throughout his tenure. His open-door policy resulted in even the most cynical of reporters giving him the benefit of the doubt.
It would be wonderful if all government officials were so sensible. But they’re not. They let their egos get in the way of their common sense. They hold grudges. They attempt to take petty revenge.
Clever reporters know how to deal with that syndrome. In addition to including the standard “No comment” in every story, they go out of their way to get all the details from those who disagree with the silent official. That approach makes their pieces one-sided, but if anyone complains, they can shrug their shoulders, point to their phone logs showing numerous attempts to reach The Unspeaking One and claim to have done the best they could.
It’s a weasel-like thing to do, but it usually works. The officials eventually relent, the reporters make vague promises to be nicer (promises they have no intention of keeping) and the situation reverts to sub-normal.
There is, however, another way.
The journalist can take the tiff public.
Doing so requires a certain amount of subtlety, because airing the details of the dispute can be perceived (correctly) by the public as a self-serving move by the writer. It’s best to limit the matter to a passing mention (“The senator refused to discuss the controversy with this reporter because she is still annoyed about a story I wrote back in 1995 about her oversized expense account”).
(OK, maybe a little more subtle than that.)
What you don’t do is make the feud the focus of your piece.
Which is exactly what Bangor Daily News columnist Renee Ordway did in her August 27 article on Bangor’s police chief. After noting that the chief (she never gives his full name) hasn’t spoken to her in nearly two years, allegedly because of his dislike of her piece on parking-ticket quotas, she launches into a listing of every politician and bureaucrat who has refused to return her phone calls.
It’s a lot of names, although no more than any veteran reporter could compile. But most experienced journalists wouldn’t bother, because they’d realize that to print such a thing would not only be self-indulgent, but also pointless.
They’d know that the public doesn’t care about their petty disagreements. To waste space on this sort of thing is a disservice to readers.
Somewhere toward the bottom of her column, Ordway seems to realize this. Sort of.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she writes. “I take no pride in the length of that list, but I see it as a cost of the profession, and I’ve been in the profession for a long time.
“If reporters and columnists do their jobs well and do their jobs honestly, then chances are there are going to be times when certain people, especially those on the public payrolls, get angry and don’t like the outcome.”
If Ordway had wanted to write a piece that actually had something to say, she might have mentioned cases in which the chief’s refusal to talk had some impact on public policy. But she didn’t, possibly because there aren’t any such cases. She could also have noted whether the chief speaks to other reporters (I’m told he does), although that would have made her own dispute seem even more inconsequential.
Instead, Ordway devoted her space to stroking her own ego. I doubt that’s what the Bangor Daily is paying her to do.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.