For a Public Information Office

 Posted on May 12, 2008 in Uncategorized

Napoleon's Third Rule of Infantry Combat, per Terry MacCarthy:

When your enemy is in the process of destroying himself, do not interfere!

In light of that, I'm tempted not to comment on the Harris County DA's proposed creation of a Public Information Office to serve as the "face and voice" of the Office.

The Chronicle doesn't like the idea:

But what often happens is that reporters are routed to the press officer, who cannot answer their questions because they have no direct knowledge of the matter at hand. A communications professional usually is adept at finding out the information, but if the answers generate additional questions, the "flaks," as they are known, have to go back for further information. It's inefficient, time-consuming and frustrating for reporters trying to learn important and sensitive government information.

Its chronic editorial impairment notwithstanding (flak is antiaircraft fire; flacks are publicity agents), the Chronicle is right: a Public Information Office acting as intermediary between the press and the prosecutors will inevitably restrict the flow of information from the public's servants to the public. AHCL doesn't disagree; in fact, she says, the folks at the Chronicle "should be glad that the Office is talking to them at all."

Arrogance brought down Chuck Rosenthal. Chuck's arrogance permeated the office, creating the culture of arrogance that was obvious to the criminal defense bar before the end of last year, when it started coming to the public's attention. This arrogance led to a certain opacity in the management of the Office. All of the candidates for DA have agreed on the need for more transparency. A Public Information Office would be good for the public if its services were added to those already provided by ADAs talking to Brian Rogers, boy reporter.

But what does the interim DA do? Create a new office, not to supplement the line DAs' communication with the press, but to supplant it. This is damaging to the prosecutors' morale and to the public's trust - to the prosecutors' morale because they feel that they are no longer trusted to talk to reporters and because it's almost always a nice boost for a lawyer to see her name in the paper in connection with a case she's tried; and to the public's trust because people are rightly less likely to trust the guy who's being paid to spin the facts than the guy who was in the room when the facts were made.

In fact, if I could do one thing to keep the Office from repairing its shot-up credibility in the eyes of the public, it'd probably be this: stop the line prosecutors - most of whom are at least decent human beings - from talking to the public about what they do and how they do it. Thanks to Ken Magidson, now I can dream up other ways to help ensure that the Office stays on the ropes for as long as possible.

It hasn't gone unnoticed by the defense bar that the Chronicle has given more attention to us and our cause in recent years than it had for a decade or so. I remember noticing four or five years ago that a Chronicle article about a criminal trial would always include at least one quotes from the prosecutor, but would very rarely include even a mention of the defense lawyer's name; I looked back at the Chronicle archives and saw that it was not always so.

Since I made that observation there has been a definite shift in the Chronicle toward the telling of both sides of the story. There is no way that a public information officer could know enough about all of the interesting cases going on down at the courthouse to talk meaningfully to the courthouse reporters about whatever interests them. If the press have to get the State's side of the story from one person, or one office, they probably won't get it. A policy against line prosecutors talking to the press will leave an information vacuum that the defense bar will be more than happy to fill.

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