The untidy truth

As I interviewed for my first job as a Capitol Hill press secretary, a seasoned Washington staffer hit me with a question that caught me off guard.

“Give me an example of when it might be OK to lie to the press,” she said.

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“Never,” I quickly replied. 

For a moment, my mind raced. What if a nosy reporter asked a very personal question that could damage the congressman’s reputation? What about denying a charge that could cost us the next election? 

“That’s the right answer,” she confirmed. “Eventually, you get caught.”

She was right. And as I learned the ropes of handling media inquiries, I tried to remember that rule. Did I answer every reporter’s question in clear and unequivocal terms? Not by a long shot. I became skilled at offering responses like, “I’ve got nothing for you on that,” or, “Our statement speaks for itself.” 

Those slippery non-answers can drive reporters nuts. Veteran Iowa newsman David Yepsen once needled me with a riddle. How many press secretaries does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: I’ll have to get back to you on that.

As I read about Rep. Chris Lee’s (R-N.Y.) sudden resignation this week, I focused less on the accusations of attempted infidelity and more on the early efforts at damage control. According to Gawker.com, which published flirty e-mails allegedly sent from the lawmaker’s personal account, “Lee’s spokesman eventually announced that the congressman believed he’d been hacked.”

When Lee announced a few hours later that he was stepping down amid “profound mistakes,” it became clear that the “hacker defense” was a lie.

Now, it could be that Lee’s press secretary isn’t guilty of lying to Gawker. Perhaps the congressman misled his aide, and the flack was simply transmitting what he believed was the truth.

But it raises an important question about the role of a congressional press secretary. As a federal employee, your paycheck is funded by taxpayers — not the politician for whom you work. Your “boss” isn’t simply the elected official whose name is on the door, but also the public — and the reporters who ask questions on the public’s behalf.

It’s true that Gawker is a gossip website, and not the local newspaper read by most of Lee’s constituents in upstate New York. But when a media outlet asks questions, press secretaries shouldn’t view themselves as celebrity publicists, whose primary responsibility is to manage the reputations of their clients. 

Even good private-sector publicists know that lying to reporters destroys one of their most critical resources — their own credibility as a spokesman. Just ask Charlie Sheen’s flack, who shamelessly attributed the troubled actor’s chemically induced rampage at the Plaza Hotel to an “allergic reaction to medication.”

Scandalous behavior by politicians is nothing new. But the media’s scrutiny of elected officials’ attempts at damage control has spiked in an era when a “wide stance” in a public rest room, or a mysterious hike along the Appalachian Trail, generates ridicule rather than resolution.

When will flacks learn that the untidy truth is the smarter long-term strategy?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.