Whistle at the peril of your job 

Follow me for a momen

Follow me for a moment back to a time when our presidents were named Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and men named Welch, Branigin and Whitcomb occupied the Governor"s Office in Indianapolis. In the 1960s, television had not yet begun dictating news coverage. Newspaper and wire service reporters wandered the Statehouse, scraping up information to keep Hoosiers informed about the policies and preachments of government. There was a certain freedom of access, and a certain informality. A reporter could go here and there without being looked upon as hostile. While each governor had a press secretary, the governors usually were available to speak for themselves. Roger Branigin, for one, couldn"t resist the opportunity to share his impressive repertoire of off-color stories. None of the governmental departments had "media representatives." If some functionary wanted to talk to a reporter or "leak" some information, he or she could do so generally without fear of getting into trouble. Legislators met every other year and thus could inflict less damage on public policy. Their leaders, including committee chairmen, were always accessible. The only unwritten rule was that a reporter wouldn"t mention if the leader happened to reek of strong drink. Also, reporters never wrote about any sexual shenanigans, even if they involved ambitious politicos who presented themselves as paragons of virtue. Efficient despite its flaws, this system began changing in the 1970s, and especially in the "80s. TV was the main reason. As image became paramount, it became necessary to control the image. To control image, you control information. So along came a line of spokesmen, spokeswomen and spokespersons, some of them ex-reporters who were perfectly willing to shape the news to make the boss look good. The news business changed in other ways as well, partly because of sound-bite coverage. Details were less important and, of course, the dull part of government, which is sometimes the most important part, was ignored or relegated to public cable channels no one watches. With these changes, the natural tendency of bureaucracy to protect its turf became stronger. An employee who went around the "media representative" could face reprimand, or worse, especially in those jobs regarded as political rather than merit. But even merit employees could be targets. What we used to call a "tipster" now became a whistle-blower. Some departments had their own unwritten rule: Whistle at the peril of your job. Intimidation works. What employee is going to report on political deals, misuse of funds, mismanagement and other forms of malfeasance, especially when bureaucrats, as they tend to do, cover up for each other? Well, don"t expect the "media representatives" to crank out press releases that reflect unfavorably on the man or woman who signs the paycheck. This "unwritten policy," pernicious as it is, extends through most of state government and lately has manifested itself in written form in one department, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, traditionally the most inefficient arm of the state. Because a brave employee named Joyce Warren refused to sign a new directive muzzling BMV workers, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union recently filed a class action federal lawsuit charging that the policy violates constitutionally protected freedom of speech. Let"s hope the ICLU prevails and the Legislature supports a bill to provide whistle-blower protection for BMV employees. While they"re at it, they may need to extend the protection to other departments. Attorney General Steve Carter"s spokeswoman says the office has a written policy requiring employees to get clearance before talking to the media. Meanwhile, don"t look for Gov. Frank O"Bannon to step in and do the right thing. O"Bannon"s views were offered up by his spokeswoman, Mary Dieter. These policies, she said, presumably with a straight face, are there "so we have a consistent, accurate voice in speaking with the media." Dieter, a former Statehouse reporter for a Louisville newspaper, recognizes her master"s voice.

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