Deep in my colleague Dana Nichols’ story today about the federal government shutdown was the following paragraph:
“An inquiry to the Stanislaus National Forest was referred first to a regional spokesperson, and then to a phone number for the Office of Management and Budget in Washington. At that number, a voice message asked for inquiries to be sent by email. The agency did not respond to an emailed inquiry.”
I’m glad Dana included such detail about this tortured and futile quest for basic information (i.e., whether Stanislaus campgrounds or other facilities were closing). While I realize these are strange times for the federal government, such roundabout media-relations tactics are becoming more common, even under routine circumstances.
Some public information officers and bureaucrats prefer email inquiries because all you have to do is respond once. There is no opportunity for a spontaneous back-and-forth discussion, making it easier to control the message. This method can also be used to keep experts — agency scientists, for example — at arm’s length from reporters.
I don’t know if that’s what the Stanislaus National Forest or its overarching agencies were attempting to do. I would call them for comment, but in light of Dana’s experience, what’s the point? Due to circumstances admittedly beyond their control, they’re not likely to pick up the phone anyway.
The one thing journalists can do is to always explain, with acute specificity, how and whether people or government agencies respond to requests for information. Thanks to Dana for doing just that.