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The politicians' pawns [Commentary]

Baltimore County officials co-opted the media coverage of a man's invasion of the WMAR-TV studios in Towson last week — the latest in a string of news events in which politicians were given center stage for no apparent reason.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was the first official to speak about the crazy circumstances surrounding the incident at the TV station on York Road. Speaking just before 5 p.m. to hastily assembled reporters from the four local TV stations, local radio outlets, and national media, Mr. Kamenetz announced the big news: that the suspect who crashed a stolen truck into Channel 2's front entrance had been taken into custody.

With cameras and microphones capturing his every word, Mr. Kamenetz quickly turned his comments into the blah-blah-blah that politicians are known for, thanking everyone involved (read: future voters) for their professionalism in this trying time. Once he did his political dance, he turned the press conference over to Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson, who had little to say. With the big news shared, he stood at the microphone deflecting questions shouted by reporters about specific details and motives so as not to give up any important investigative information.

Mr. Kamenetz isn't alone in his grandstanding. Earlier this year, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman spoke often about the fatal shooting at the Zumiez store in Columbia Mall. The incident unfolded on a busy Saturday afternoon in a mall "near Washington, D.C.," as several national anchors suggested, when nothing else "breaking" was occurring, giving Mr. Ulman a national platform at several press conferences that weekend.

The politician press practice was perfected by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who became a voice of reason in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (who incidentally was convicted on corruption charges in February) became a media darling at virtually every press conference after Hurricane Katrina. Messrs. Ulman and Kamenetz are just following suit.

Over a 15-year period as a reporter and editor, I covered scores of press conferences. For several years in the middle of that stretch, I held a public relations job with a state agency, where I was tasked with ensuring that press conferences went our agency's way.

Reporters covering breaking news events welcome any details, even from a county executive. The bigger the incident, the harder it is to get facts. Officials put up walls. The higher the wall, the more tidbits of news are valued. Put another way, anyone who offers anything concrete is a godsend.

As a public relations person, controlling information is vitally important. Positioning a politician in front of an incident affirms his or her power, and it prevents voters from asking what wasn't being done that allowed such a breach to occur.

But in reality, neither Mr. Kamenetz, Mr. Ulman nor any other politician is a sworn law enforcement officer. Politicians typically have as much standing in these matters as your next door neighbor spouting conspiracy theories.

Police chiefs cannot be blamed. The politicians they get to stand behind at these press conferences pay their salaries. You can't tell your boss what to do, even if you have a gun.

Every journalist should understand that the only safe source for information on criminal matters is law enforcement officials. Politicians cannot arrest or investigate; they cannot prosecute or protect.

The media covers these politicians' comments at these press conferences because they fill the void. Live and local, even if it's illogical.

Reporters and editors must take back control of press conferences. Yes, politicians and their public relations staff control the podium, but not what gets put on the air.

If a politician stands in front of the cameras before we hear from a law enforcement official, then the media shouldn't broadcast the comments. The TV and radio stations covering the press conference live should just wait for the law enforcement officer to launch into his or her comments. Then the red light of their camera should be pointed at the speaker. If members of the media were to take this tack once or twice, the politicians would give up. No loss there.

When these incidents occur, each of us must recalibrate our understanding of safety in our world. Facts, not grandstanding, help with that process. Anything less from our media just gives these senseless acts more power over us.

Bob Graham is a former reporter, editor and journalism teacher, who owns Bigger Pie Strategies, a Baltimore-based small business marketing company. He can be reached at biggerpiestrategies@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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