BERTON: In praise of ‘spokespeople’

Opinion Apr 16, 2016 by Paul Berton The Hamilton Spectator

At journalism schools, instructors do not like to see the term "spokesperson" in articles.

It's the same in newsrooms.

"Go straight to the top," young journalists are told. "Get a comment from the president. Readers want to know what's really happening."

Unfortunately, presidents of companies, organizations or especially countries usually do not have time for journalism students or even big-city reporters. We are often stonewalled, and obliged to accept a "comment" from a professional "spokesperson."

"No substitutes," barks the typical editor. "No talking heads."

Substitute. Talking head. It doesn't sound the best.

Journalists have come to utter all these terms with disdain.

I used the term "official" to politely describe someone in this column recently and an editor here wondered whether "functionary" might be more apt.

Upon hearing the conversation, other journalists chimed in: "Minion," said one. "Apparatchik," said another.

There are still more, none particularly pleasant for those on the receiving end: Subordinate. Underling.

Mouthpiece, flunky, lackey ...

Journalists can be cruel.

The truth, however, is that these folks play an increasingly important role in today's media world, for better and for worse. Sometimes a good spokesperson is actually more important than the president herself. (Good presidents know this.)

Spokespeople make comments the president either has approved, would approve, or are so mealy-mouthed they say absolutely nothing anybody would take issue with, except of course the journalists, who are preparing the reports and looking for actual information.

Saying nothing at all is often the whole point of many comments.

It's why presidents insulate themselves – or are insulated from – journalists: they don't want to be associated with any concrete comments, unless they are brilliant, intelligent, empathetic, poetic and insightful, in which case they take all the credit.

Usually, when presidents do make pronouncements, what comes out of their mouths has been carefully scripted by a spokesperson anyway. It only appears to be the president's comment.

Sometimes, presidents actually don't know what to say, or worse, have nothing at all to say, and are relying on a "spokesperson" to help them say something important, or something that at least sounds that way. Or worse still, simply can't be trusted to say anything.

Which brings us, of course, to the loose cannons, the kind of people the media love. No spokespeople. No prepared comments. Straight from the heart. Off the cuff.

It's like Christmas for journalists. A gift in every utterance.

Rob Ford was one such Santa.

So is Donald Trump. You might think Trump's greatest strength is the fact he has no spokesperson, nobody to tell him to just shut up. Perhaps that's why he has been able to "connect" with so many people.

He doesn't, apparently, need a spokesperson, because, according to him: "I went to an Ivy League school. I'm very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words."

Or does he?

Paul Berton is editor-in-chief of The Hamilton Spectator and thespec.com. You can reach him at 905-526-3482 or pberton@thespec.com .

BERTON: In praise of ‘spokespeople’

Journalists disdain ‘talking heads,’ but they can be invaluable

Opinion Apr 16, 2016 by Paul Berton The Hamilton Spectator

At journalism schools, instructors do not like to see the term "spokesperson" in articles.

It's the same in newsrooms.

"Go straight to the top," young journalists are told. "Get a comment from the president. Readers want to know what's really happening."

Unfortunately, presidents of companies, organizations or especially countries usually do not have time for journalism students or even big-city reporters. We are often stonewalled, and obliged to accept a "comment" from a professional "spokesperson."

"No substitutes," barks the typical editor. "No talking heads."

Substitute. Talking head. It doesn't sound the best.

Journalists have come to utter all these terms with disdain.

I used the term "official" to politely describe someone in this column recently and an editor here wondered whether "functionary" might be more apt.

Upon hearing the conversation, other journalists chimed in: "Minion," said one. "Apparatchik," said another.

There are still more, none particularly pleasant for those on the receiving end: Subordinate. Underling.

Mouthpiece, flunky, lackey ...

Journalists can be cruel.

The truth, however, is that these folks play an increasingly important role in today's media world, for better and for worse. Sometimes a good spokesperson is actually more important than the president herself. (Good presidents know this.)

Spokespeople make comments the president either has approved, would approve, or are so mealy-mouthed they say absolutely nothing anybody would take issue with, except of course the journalists, who are preparing the reports and looking for actual information.

Saying nothing at all is often the whole point of many comments.

It's why presidents insulate themselves – or are insulated from – journalists: they don't want to be associated with any concrete comments, unless they are brilliant, intelligent, empathetic, poetic and insightful, in which case they take all the credit.

Usually, when presidents do make pronouncements, what comes out of their mouths has been carefully scripted by a spokesperson anyway. It only appears to be the president's comment.

Sometimes, presidents actually don't know what to say, or worse, have nothing at all to say, and are relying on a "spokesperson" to help them say something important, or something that at least sounds that way. Or worse still, simply can't be trusted to say anything.

Which brings us, of course, to the loose cannons, the kind of people the media love. No spokespeople. No prepared comments. Straight from the heart. Off the cuff.

It's like Christmas for journalists. A gift in every utterance.

Rob Ford was one such Santa.

So is Donald Trump. You might think Trump's greatest strength is the fact he has no spokesperson, nobody to tell him to just shut up. Perhaps that's why he has been able to "connect" with so many people.

He doesn't, apparently, need a spokesperson, because, according to him: "I went to an Ivy League school. I'm very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words."

Or does he?

Paul Berton is editor-in-chief of The Hamilton Spectator and thespec.com. You can reach him at 905-526-3482 or pberton@thespec.com .

BERTON: In praise of ‘spokespeople’

Journalists disdain ‘talking heads,’ but they can be invaluable

Opinion Apr 16, 2016 by Paul Berton The Hamilton Spectator

At journalism schools, instructors do not like to see the term "spokesperson" in articles.

It's the same in newsrooms.

"Go straight to the top," young journalists are told. "Get a comment from the president. Readers want to know what's really happening."

Unfortunately, presidents of companies, organizations or especially countries usually do not have time for journalism students or even big-city reporters. We are often stonewalled, and obliged to accept a "comment" from a professional "spokesperson."

"No substitutes," barks the typical editor. "No talking heads."

Substitute. Talking head. It doesn't sound the best.

Journalists have come to utter all these terms with disdain.

I used the term "official" to politely describe someone in this column recently and an editor here wondered whether "functionary" might be more apt.

Upon hearing the conversation, other journalists chimed in: "Minion," said one. "Apparatchik," said another.

There are still more, none particularly pleasant for those on the receiving end: Subordinate. Underling.

Mouthpiece, flunky, lackey ...

Journalists can be cruel.

The truth, however, is that these folks play an increasingly important role in today's media world, for better and for worse. Sometimes a good spokesperson is actually more important than the president herself. (Good presidents know this.)

Spokespeople make comments the president either has approved, would approve, or are so mealy-mouthed they say absolutely nothing anybody would take issue with, except of course the journalists, who are preparing the reports and looking for actual information.

Saying nothing at all is often the whole point of many comments.

It's why presidents insulate themselves – or are insulated from – journalists: they don't want to be associated with any concrete comments, unless they are brilliant, intelligent, empathetic, poetic and insightful, in which case they take all the credit.

Usually, when presidents do make pronouncements, what comes out of their mouths has been carefully scripted by a spokesperson anyway. It only appears to be the president's comment.

Sometimes, presidents actually don't know what to say, or worse, have nothing at all to say, and are relying on a "spokesperson" to help them say something important, or something that at least sounds that way. Or worse still, simply can't be trusted to say anything.

Which brings us, of course, to the loose cannons, the kind of people the media love. No spokespeople. No prepared comments. Straight from the heart. Off the cuff.

It's like Christmas for journalists. A gift in every utterance.

Rob Ford was one such Santa.

So is Donald Trump. You might think Trump's greatest strength is the fact he has no spokesperson, nobody to tell him to just shut up. Perhaps that's why he has been able to "connect" with so many people.

He doesn't, apparently, need a spokesperson, because, according to him: "I went to an Ivy League school. I'm very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words."

Or does he?

Paul Berton is editor-in-chief of The Hamilton Spectator and thespec.com. You can reach him at 905-526-3482 or pberton@thespec.com .