They are the wired defenders of the first amendment, clad for battle with notepads, microphones and makeup.
At the first sign of crisis or calamity, the men and women of television news swoop in to ask for the most intimate, invasive and even embarrassing details of your life. Shootings, crashes, disease, allegations of child abuse - it's all pursued with an extended microphone and the common query: "Tell us about it. Tell us how you feel."
Turn the tables, however, and ask those same reporters, producers and anchors some questions, and you may hear a different theme. Some actual responses from Baltimore television news professionals:
"I'd like to, but I can't."
"Please don't interview me. My children thank you. Their [parent] has to keep earning a paycheck."
"I've got to ask for permission. And you know I won't get it."
Hearing a journalist offer a blanket "no comment" is kind of like finding a guy from Hertz at your door demanding to borrow your Toyota for the week without paying for the privilege.
At two Baltimore stations, WBFF (Channel 45) and WJZ (Channel 13), officials have blanket policies forbidding reporters, producers and other staff members from commenting on any topic without the express consent of their general managers or public relations directors.
There's an understandable desire for people not to speak off the cuff about specific corporate activities about which they may not be fully informed. And public relations people often aid the reporting of a story. Those at MSNBC and ABC News, for example, say they should be informed of press inquiries, but don't prohibit comment.
"There is no huge gate or lock on their phones saying you can't talk to the press," says MSNBC spokesman Mark O'Connor.
But reporters at the two Baltimore stations - and some others across the country - are often prevented from talking publicly even about their journalism, which triggers this question: How can we take them seriously as professionals when their own bosses don't?(For the record, The Sun prefers that outside press questions about company policy be answered by its chief spokeswoman, Carol Dreyfuss. But the newspaper's journalists are free to talk about issues, such as coverage in the paper or labor disputes, if they want to.)
WBFF's position is dictated by its parent company, the Baltimore County-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns or runs more than 60 TV stations nationally. And the corporation approaches the policy with a dead seriousness. At its Pittsburgh station, news director Tom Burke was fired in January for appearing on a local radio show without getting approval from his station's regional manager.
Although he conceded there had been a few technical glitches, Burke was simply defending his staff's coverage of the final Steelers game at Three Rivers Stadium, according to an account in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But he hadn't gotten clearance first.
WBFF news staffers sometimes are allowed to comment publicly. Even so, the policy has put a fright in people there. At Channel 13, the tension is even more palpable. On one national Web site where TV professionals air grievances (www.tvbigmouth.com), an anonymous exchange about WJZ general manager Jay Newman last week led to this lament:
"He keeps telling us that we can't talk to the press, no one can without his permission," one posting in the chat room read. "Maybe the truth will set us free." While the station's news director, Gail Bending, often is allowed to comment on journalistic issues, and Newman talks about ratings, controversial topics are shipped off to spokeswoman Liz Chuday. Rarely are reporters at the station allowed to speak for articles, even those about their own stories.
"If we get a call it's routed through PR, and we assess who the best person to respond is," Chuday says. "Sales calls go to sales, news calls go to news. If you called every company around the city, you'd find that normally, those calls go through PR."
Former WJZ reporter Kathy Fowler, now free-lancing in Washington, was given a severance package when she was fired by the Baltimore station earlier this year. But she acknowledges that the station withheld thousands of dollars when she refused to sign an agreement barring her from speaking publicly about WJZ. "Basically, I couldn't be bought," Fowler says now. "That's my freedom of speech."
The station consistently has declined to talk about Fowler's departure, saying it is a personnel matter.
Some look askance at the restrictive policies. "We don't want to stifle our people from the fundamental right to engage in the reporting of stories about them - just as we're hopeful that people will talk to us when we go out to report a story," says Princell Hair, news director at WBAL (Channel 11).
WBAL general manager Bill Fine and Hair have weighed such policies, but rejected them. "If we were to do that, we would seem hypocritical," Hair says.
Harry Bosk, a past spokesman for several state agencies and public universities, calls the policy a double standard. While newspaper reporters also can push people to comment, on TV the refusals play particularly poorly.
"People always have the prerogative to say no, but TV reporters often are very aggressive when they're asking the questions," Bosk says. "One of the first things, when you're teaching in public relations classes, is that refusing to comment is often perceived as saying, 'We're guilty - we have something to hide.' "
Burke, the director fired by Sinclair, found a job earlier this month. He starts work next week as the news director at the CBS affiliate in Fresno, Calif. The Fresno-Visalia area constitutes the 54th largest market in the country. Pittsburgh, where he used to work, is the 20th. Talk, it appears, isn't always all that cheap.
David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.