Sean Spicer, me and spinning
“I’ll leave that to the experts”
By Julie Freestone
Really. I was planning to write an essay about Sean Spicer and the job of a public information officer weeks before SS stuck his foot in his mouth most recently. He was apparently trying to defend President Trump’s decision to bomb Syria in retaliation for Syrian President Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people. To do that, Spicer picked the second day of Passover, a major Jewish holiday, to say the even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on his own people. He apparently forgot that some of the Jews who were killed in gas chambers were also Germans.
You might wonder what I was going to say about Spicer weeks ago and why I waited. My intent was to talk about what sort of a job I thought he was doing, especially at his daily press briefings. And my credentials for the critique were my stint at Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS) as the Public Information Officer. I was a little nervous about equating that role to Spicer’s task but I thought I’d give it a shot.
And why I waited was twofold: I’ve read a fair amount about Spicer’s apparently terrible performance in the White House briefing room, but I had only watched one actual event. I thought I needed to view a few more before I said anything.
I also have been trying to find a photo of me behind the podium at a press conference. I have a “fake” one shot of me when I was at the Center for Disease Control being “embedded” there for a week while local public information people like me were being shown the behind — the-scenes story of how CDC gets out news. I can’t find it although for a number of years it hung on my wall at work and then in my home office after I retired.
I kept my mouth mostly shut
Admittedly, what I did at CCHS — a county health department — was different in two major ways from what Spicer does. I organized the press conferences, generally when a crisis was occurring. I created written material to distribute to reporters for use in their stories. Sometimes I wrote “sound bites” for my bosses to use when they stood at the podium and delivered what was often frightening and sometimes incomplete information. I can’t recall a single time in my five years or more that I was actually the bearer of the bad news or the giver of information. In fact, I’d guess many of the reporters didn’t even know my name. And didn’t care.
The other major difference between Spicer’s role and mine was about “spinning.” When I first took on the Public Information Officer role — the first time the department had ever had anyone in that function — I met with the Public Health Director during a disease outbreak to discuss what we were going to say at an upcoming press conference. I made several suggestions and he listened, more or less patiently and then said tersely, “We’re not going to be spinning anything.” He insisted that we simply tell the reporters — and thus the public — what we knew and what we didn’t know, what we were doing and would be doing in the coming hours. “We’re a public agency. We aren’t going to spin anything,” was more or less what he said.
What information we provided
That was pretty much true throughout my tenure there. Setting up the press conference involved being sure all the reporters had access to the same information, that we tried to comply with their deadlines and that we protected patient privacy. That last point was a dicey one and was often left to me to explain why the law prohibited us from giving the media any information that would help them identify a patient. No information about where the person lived, how old they were and what gender if that would help very persistent reporters track down someone and interview them.
Oh yes. I did develop sound bites for the experts for every press conference based on preliminary conversations with them. The point was to be sure we provided information in a non-technical way that would help the public understand what was happening. The goal was to keep the experts on track and away from jargon. I admit that part of my agenda was to keep us from looking inept and uninformed, because we weren’t. We were usually extremely well informed and the agency spokesperson was almost always extremely knowledgeable. And trained to work with the media.
And now to Spicer
So what do I think about Spicer, apart from his latest, maybe most egregious, blunder? When I watched his briefing a few weeks ago, I was impressed with the first part. He gave information about what the president was going to be doing for the next few days. He demonstrated a broad range of knowledge about a lot of topics. He seemed at ease with the press corps, smiling and calling them by name.
But then he got to the questions. Oh my. He was defensive, belligerent, nasty. He smirked after he thought he’d scored a point. He was definitely spinning and spinning and spinning. In short, he was pretty much doing everything I told people not to do when dealing with the media. It was discouraging to watch. My bosses at Contra Costa Health Services would have been dismayed.
The worm turns
And that brings us to today (April 13), post the Hitler/Holocaust episode that made Spicer the center of yet-another Trump administration controversy. I watched the ever-so-brief briefing. Instead of an hour, it was about 15 minutes. No smirking this time. He seemed to have at least two sound bites. “I’ll leave that to the….” (President, our team, the Department of Defense). He also said a number of times about a variety of topics: “that’s a complex issue.” Someone apparently reminded him that he’s not there to put forth his opinions. And he got the message. With made for an amazingly uninformative and dull press briefing.
He didn’t completely escape the need to spin. When asked about Trump’s apparent change in attitude about China and how the Republican base would react, Spicer said the point was to get “results for the American people.” He said some version of that a few times. It must have been the third agreed-upon sound bite. Now the question is who’s coaching him?
Julie Freestone is the author, with Rudi Raab, of Stumbling Stone, a novel about tangled family histories, heroism and World War II. She was the Public Information Officer at Contra Costa Health Services and prior to that, a news reporter.