Just Say No

I don’t plan to read Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff any time soon. (To confess, Jonathan Eig’s bio of Muhammad Ali is my current sustenance.)

Yes, Wolff’s content, and his uncommitted relationship with accuracy, has caused its own firestorm. For me, however, the lessons to be learned are in public relations, not narrative pseudo-journalism.

Mistake #1: Wolff’s White House access, which created much of the book’s tastiest morsels, seems to be the result of organizational chaos (the Trump White House’s sustenance). With no clear permission or denial, and a vague endorsement from Trump, Wolff was granted access to observe, while Bannon assumed Priebus approved, while Priebus assumed Kushner … , etc.

A clear center of decision-making authority in these access requests, though an impossibility in the Trump White House, is the remedy.

While it’s disturbing to consider that these political professionals were more concerned with their own survival than the President or the country, such is the amoral worst of high-level politics.

It should not be accepted as reasonable, professional behavior, regardless of how close to the apex of political power it occurs.

Mistake #2: A peremptory Internet search would have alerted Trump’s White House staff that Wolff was not a good fly-on-the-wall candidate.  His take-down pieces on everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Christopher Hitchens were there for the Googling.

In 1990, I was director of public information for Azusa Pacific University. A local news radio personality asked if we were interested in hosting a discussion of Malathion, a controversial insecticide being sprayed to control an invasion of Mediterranean fruit flies. Sounded good, so I agreed.

The personality, it turned out, was shock jock Tom Leykis, at his last stop before nationwide syndication. I should have known better, but I didn’t.

Alerted by a frantic APU alum, I turned on Leykis to hear him announce the anti-Malathion rally at Azusa Pacific, timed for an actual spraying. Attendees would stand in the open and dare the helicopters to spray them. Standard academic discourse.

After I canceled the “rally,” Leykis characterized my reversal as a weak-spined concession to alumni pressure. I suppose that was charitable, considering the real reason was my inept unprofessional stupidity.

In the same way, allowing an author like Wolff such access is a doubly-incompetent media relations breakdown by the White House, thus creating an avoidable public image crisis.

My master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton is in public relations, particularly agenda building in the media, and many of my students are public relations majors. I try to pass along advice to them from my experience and studies, while teaching them their required journalism courses.

The best advice I give them overall is, “just say no.” They don’t have to do journalists’ jobs for them (echoing journalists’ complaint that they don’t do law enforcement’s work for them, either). PR folks don’t have to allow journalists access to private property, even if a crime is being investigated. And they certainly don’t have to give a best-selling author access to secure government offices, due diligent Googling or not.

Sure, overall, they will do their organizations wisely by counseling access at appropriate times and not locking down the media 100 percent. It’s a tough balance to work out, but it’s possible.

Their main responsibility is to their organization, however, and an automatic “yes” to media access can cause much more damage than an initial “no”–as the Bannon-Priebus-Kushner brain trust demonstrated in creating this Fire and Fury.


Remembering Jack Simms

img_0061In the summer of 2003, I was on a weekend visit to Auburn, preparing to move down and join the faculty.

Trapped in Comer Hall parking lot by a thunderstorm, I called Jack Simms.  As we talked, I told him, “Jack, my goal in coming to Auburn is to be to my students what you were to us.”

That would be a huge challenge, because of what Jack meant to Auburn journalism and its students over his 18 years as department head and the years that followed.

For those of us privileged to be his students, he was the ideal professor, mentor and friend, and he made sure that the faculty members he brought on used the same approach.

Jack’s first year was my freshman year, so I benefited from his classroom instruction and his mentorship as I worked on The Auburn Plainsman.  But it meant even more, these past 13 years, to be his friend.

As we Auburn journalism majors graduated, and so many of us went on to distinguished careers and syndicated columns and front pages and Pulitzer Prizes, Jack was our most treasured cheerleader.

Yet he never talked about himself much.  We had heard about Iwo Jima, but it wasn’t until he showed me an unpublished manuscript within the past few months that I realized what he had experienced.  The manuscript refers to a point during the battle where Jack and a fellow Marine had gotten separated from their company, the result of poor communication.  Amidst the smoke, grenades, mortars and rifles, they still managed to rejoin their company, and he survived.

In class, he never mentioned how, as an AP reporter in Tampa, he talked himself aboard a rescue ship that was heading toward the site of a private yacht fire in which young people from several prominent New York families died.  Or how he also got aboard the ship that had picked up the survivors and interviewed them.  Or how he tossed his film from the ship to a co-worker standing on the dock after the rescue ship returned, dodging quarantine rules.  This was heroic journalistic stuff.

Having returned to Auburn, I got to spend time with Jack, whether at our Friday morning breakfast group or at various journalism gatherings.  If we had driven together to Birmingham or Atlanta for an alumni meeting, it meant sitting patiently (often with his wife, Jo), waiting while he talked individually to each student.  They meant that much to each other.

His decline was noticeable and worrisome over the past few months, but it had its moments.

The first was his 90th birthday party, moved up to October to take advantage of the bye week.  (That’s where the picture above was taken.)  So many showed up, and Jack’s family did a great job of roasting him but also telling stories like the one above. And again he took the time to greet each guest and friend who approached.

The second was just three days ago, when Jack was brought to the field for the military appreciation halftime show.  He had told me earlier in the week that he didn’t know if he could make it, but he did, and accepted the crowd’s grateful cheers. And he still looked so darn rugged.

Those two, combined, would turn out to be our last chance to say goodbye to Jack.  We suspected as much, but it still made us glad and grateful that we were able to.

And now the torch has completely passed to those of us who learned from Jack.  Each of us fulfills his legacy in our own way — myself as director of the journalism program.

Intimidating?  A little, but not too much.  By his teaching, and by the example of his life, Jack prepared us well.