Reporters have been brawling with public relations flacks since the late 1800s when railroads and other corporations established press bureaus to wrangle their relationships with the media. These face-offs can be as light and collegial as a garden party. Or, the scene can be thick with bloodied fur and detached scales, as when a mongoose and king cobra fight to the death.
Such a mongoose and cobra match played out in Florida this week. Florida state flacks emailed a press release to reporters about a diversity, equity and inclusion roundtable hosted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that called DEI a “scam in higher education.” Axios Tampa Bay reporter Ben Montgomery promptly replied, “This is propaganda, not a press release.” A state flack tweeted a screen-shot of Montgomery’s response, and other members of the communications staff for the all-but-certain GOP presidential candidate tweeted their shared outrage to Montgomery’s email. Then Montgomery’s boss called him, and he said she canned him.
As is usual in personnel matters like this, Axios has confirmed Montgomery no longer works there. But as Poynter’s Tom Jones reports, Axios won’t explain why. Were there extenuating circumstances behind Montgomery’s departure? If so, the reporting from Poynter, the Washington Post, the Wrap, the New York Post, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay and Fox News has failed to uncover such evidence. For all we know, Montgomery may be a menace to society and in need of home detention and 24-hour surveillance. But I think not. Until greater resolution arrives, we can proceed on the assumption that a very good reporter got bumped off 1) for doing what reporters do every day; and 2) for doing what reporters are supposed to do.
It’s easy to take Montgomery’s side in this dispute. Flacks have never been in the truth-telling business, a non-controversial observation that doesn’t need to be defended. From public relations’ earliest days, the flack’s job has been to bathe the client in the cool flattery of the north light and undermine anybody who opposes him. Call it advocacy, call it persuasion, call it spin or call it propaganda, but a flack’s primary job is to frame selected facts into a context that will make his client shine. Ask any salesman.
Most government press releases contain a dose of propaganda, a statement that doesn’t need much defending, either. Government press releases are designed to present information that will advance the agency’s political point. We depend on reporters to puncture this flackery, to do additional reporting and to give readers the full story the government spokesmen deliberately elide. This requires reporters to push back when a politician’s staff dumps a load of manure in a press release and then expects the press to choke it down like hot butter biscuits. Just set aside for a moment your politics and your personal views on DEI and DeSantis for a moment and read the press release Montgomery teed off on. Then decide for yourself whether its aim was to honestly explore an issue or to spin coverage to the benefit of a predetermined agenda.
If Montgomery’s response to the press release strikes you as histrionic, be advised that histrionics run both ways in the mongoose and cobra war. Government flacks often give reporters the bluest and darkest tongue-lashings when news stories run that displease them. Many of these tirades make Montgomery’s email response look like a curtsy in comparison. It’s only natural for source-reporter relations to sometimes grow tense if the goal is to find news. The real worry is when sources and reporters get too cozy and the tough questions stop coming. When that happens, the news turns to mush.
Now, as a matter of etiquette — and in order to maintain a working relationship that will benefit readers — it’s best for journalists to toughen their hides and refrain from overreacting when a flack distributes propaganda or material of marginal newsworthiness. The key to pushing back is not to put the flack “in his place” but to elicit valuable information for readers. “The world would be better off if more reporters responded to more politicians’ press releases with, ‘This isn’t news and don’t waste my time with this drivel,’” my former editor Garrett M. Graff tells me.
Along these same lines, can we persuade more flacks to wear body armor? Most of the PR people I’ve worked with in my career have not been as brittle and vengeful as DeSantis and his press people appear to have been in their press relations. I know of no PR person who is such a delicate flower that they turn furious if I called a communique from their office “propaganda.” Most would smile and say, “That’s my job.” How necessary was it for the Florida flacks to turn this skirmish into a battle royale that cost Montgomery his job? Of course, fueling a maelstrom may have been precisely the point: It gave DeSantis another opportunity to show off to the GOP’s press-loathing base as he prepares to jump into the 2024 presidential race.
That said, there’s no reason to inflate this skirmish into a case of martyrdom for Montgomery. Nor is there any evidence that he seeks such a benediction. “I regret being so short,” Montgomery said. “In the style of Axios, I used smart brevity and it cost me.”
Pushing back is an essential part of journalism, as Jim VandeHei, Axios co-founder, accomplished journalist, and a former big boss of mine here at POLITICO, recently wrote in Axios. VandeHei recounts the time about a decade ago when things had soured between POLITICO and Roger Ailes of Fox News. As a POLITICO executive, VandeHei attempted to quiet the waters, but nothing worked. Then in 2013, a POLITICO piece made Ailes fume and holler at VandeHei in a phone call, his response being the sort you might receive from a furious flack. VandeHei offered this retort:
“Roger, Go fuck yourself.”
Ailes’ screaming continued until he hung up.
VandeHei did the right thing that day. And he wasn’t fired for doing it.
Message to flacks: Send flowers or email to [email protected]. Or have me fired for my impudence. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed wears body armor. My Mastodon and Post accounts think life is a Montessori school. My RSS feed floats like a mongoose and stings like a cobra.