The Grubbiness of Expediency

This column was published Sunday, March 24, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


There’s danger in being a former journalist. The danger is you know more than the average news consumer about the judgment calls and other practical realities that, while a crucial part of the news reporting process, are not easily discernable in the final product.

Because of my days and nights in the trenches gathering, writing and reporting news, I can’t consume it without the additional layer of knowledge and experience that came with having actually produced it.

Every morning, I consume four or five online newspapers. Every morning I encounter more and more of this:

“The State Department declined to comment.”

“A spokesman for Bolton did not reply to a request for comment.”

“The RNC declined to comment.”

When I encounter these non-responses, I lapse into reporter mode and rhetorically ask the next logical follow-up question, “Why?”

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Problem is, when you’re on the record with a journalist, everything you say is fair game. When all you say is you don’t want to talk, that’s what will get published and news consumers are left to draw their own conclusions about motivation.

In every newsroom, the very pragmatic aspect of the decision-making process is an innate understanding that every day, there’s a hole to fill. My daily newspaper will not deliver 16 blank pages of newsprint to my driveway. I’m not going to flip on the 6 o’clock TV news and have the anchorperson stare back at me for 30 minutes.

I’m reminded of a day when I toiled in the journalistic vineyards and was chasing down two stories, either of them, had they borne fruit, newsworthy. I’d gotten word from a source that the Attorney General of Kansas was to be indicted on perjury related to a sexual harassment case against him. Meanwhile, at the exact same time in the Kansas House, a cabal of restless conservative Republicans were plotting a leadership coup against the sitting House Speaker, a fellow Republican who did not share cabal ideology.

All day, I’m working sources, on the phone, in person, chasing two separate stories. The courts and legislative coup plotters are confirming nothing, much less commenting. Restless cabals, regardless of their ideology, traditionally don’t telegraph their coup-plotting moves. Sort of goes against the whole reason for plotting.

The clock’s ticking closer to 6 p.m., the assignment desk is breathing down my neck to fill the hole. Part of my duties was to work up a ‘bump tease,’ words the anchorperson says out loud, urging viewers to hang on through the commercial break. Only half-kidding, I turned in this:

“The Attorney General was not indicted. The Speaker of the House was not ousted. We’ll be back with more stuff that didn’t happen… right after this.”

My argument was an Attorney General not indicted and a House Speaker un-toppled are not news. The countervailing argument descends from the loftiness of editorial judgment of what is and is not news, into the grubbiness of expediency. Gotta fill the hole. Every day.

In a live shot from the Statehouse, I went on TV and filled my 90-second hole by regurgitating a day spent chasing two stories, neither of which panned out. Was it news? Did viewers gain new knowledge, allowing them to develop informed opinions? Did we fill the hole? No, I hope so and without a doubt.

Later In my career I switched sides and became a spokesperson. When approached by the media, I made it a point to say something, anything, even when I didn’t want to. Motivated by a fear of reading, “the spokesman had nothing to say,” I spoke, especially when it was bad news. Effective spokespeople can always deflect, obfuscate or rage against the machine, in the service of the system that signs the paycheck.

I do not believe the increasing spate of not talking when approached by journalists is pushback against a fundamental American Constitutional right, but I will admit to worrying that those not commenting may be using the ill-informed and incredibly dangerous sidetrack of “fake news” as cover for not talking.

My experience leads me to believe that there’s rarely a time when ‘no comment’ leaves the news consumer with a positive feeling. I’ve also learned that few of the bits of news I consume each morning are Pulitzer-worthy or even the way it’s taught in J-school. The hole filling, remember?

We will form opinions and draw conclusions. It’s human nature. It’s why we consume news.

A couple of careers ago, Matson covered politics and government for a Topeka TV station. Later he served as spokesperson for a governor of Kansas. His column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury.