Public Officials Beware: The Media Will Uncover Your Lies

A little lie the Seattle mayor told his constituents about a gun buyback program may now cost him his re-election. It’s a lesson for all public officials about dealing with reporters.
by | August 2013
 

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn told a lie. It was a convenient lie, and a little one as politics goes. In early May, the mayor’s office came up with an election-friendly project to melt down guns from the city buyback program and turn them into metal bricks inscribed with anti-violence messages from kids. The famous local glass-blowing Chihuly Studio and a steel recycler had volunteered their services. What could possibly go wrong?

To begin with, the guns had already been recast as rebar. The mayor knew it. But the press conference (which you can watch below) went ahead as scripted. “We were inspired by the idea that we could take these weapons that were recovered -- 716 at the first gun buyback -- and do something meaningful with them,” said McGinn. A press release also used the same future tense: “Plaques made from metal upcycled from guns recovered from Seattle’s gun buyback program will feature quotes from Seattle students about what a violence-free future means to them.”

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A local radio station called the mayor’s office out on the misstatement. But instead of openly admitting the misstep, the office instead corrected the tense without comment or noting the correction: They simply put the word “future” in front of “gun buyback program” in the press release online.

The Seattle Police Department was the first to apologize, taking blame for failing to set aside a few guns for the project. Soon enough it was the mayor’s turn. McGinn conceded that he found out the morning of the news conference that the guns had already been reduced to rebar. “I apologize for not being more forthcoming,” he wrote in an email to local media. “I didn’t want this piece of information to distract from the program.”

More than a month later, the story was still distracting because of another problem from the original press conference. At the time, the mayor said the project would be entirely privately funded. “No taxpayer dollars,” he said. But reporters dug through records from the mayor’s office to show a part-time city staffer, a former political fundraiser, had already been hired to coordinate the so-called “Weapons to Words” project and solicit student quotations at the time of the announcement.

Spokesman Aaron Pickus characterized the media’s attention to the matter as “unfair,” adding that “nothing is fully privately funded,” and then took a sudden leave of absence without explanation.

Even today, the incident has continued to distract. Many of McGinn’s nine opponents in this month’s mayoral primary are calling for greater transparency and new leadership, using the mayor’s misstep on the peace bricks against him.

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I don’t know whether or not the mayor’s office did a postmortem on this incident, or what they learned if they did. Repeated requests for an interview went unanswered. But one of the culprits is certainly technology. Changing digital copy is so easy, it’s tempting to edit out mistakes in an online press release and hope nobody notices. Government transparency must surely include a disclosure that a press release was changed after its release, noting the nature and date of the correction on the same page as the original. It is common practice among news outlets. It should be for newsmakers too.

The media may share culpability here as well. It’s a worldview, often wrapped in the pretense of sophistication and shared by a segment of journalists, pundits and consultants alike, where lies are best measured in terms of results -- as in, if they work, how could they be wrong?

Against that impulse is old-school common sense summarized by Governing senior editor Jonathan Walters, who wrote the definitive media survival guide for public officials: “Don’t lie to reporters … because if a reporter finds out you’ve lied, you deserve every bit of the approbation, scrutiny and misery that follows.”

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