Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Dear public officials: No comment? Are you serious?

Too many are forgetting the public part of their jobs.

MAYBE IF WE washed public officials' mouths out with soap the way we used to with kids who spouted dirty words, they'd stop spewing the two dirtiest words in public service:

"No comment."

That's if they say anything at all, I mean.

Public officials conveniently forgetting the "public" part of their jobs is nothing new: My cubiclemate William Bender has gone after Philadelphia's selectively silent officials on several occasions. Most recently he even conducted a Twitter poll to pick the right nickname for a certain prickly city spokesman.


Only if you're OK with spineless public officials refusing to be held accountable.

Only if you buy officials' "whiny-mean media" defense. Reminder: Those questions reporters ask, those Right to Knows they file, that's all done on the public's behalf because oversight is vital.

It was while reading a Porngate story full of no-comments and listening to a Chicago columnist saying she was being shut out by officials in her city that I realized how far this problem stretches.

From Philly to Chicago to Oregon - where a newspaper editor recently bemoaned less-than-forthcoming public agencies - there is a troubling trend of officials who think they can get away with saying nothing on issues that affect the public.

Oh, the examples are endless.

In Chicago, we have a mayor who had zip to say about a dash-cam video that was buried for more than a year that showed a white police officer fatally shooting a black teen 16 times. And get this: The freelance journalist who forced the release of the video was barred from the news conference.

Closer to home, one of the most egregious examples is District Attorney Seth Williams. Throughout the salacious email debacle dubbed Porngate, he's had little to no public comment - except for some conveniently timed news releases - about a few anchors sinking his tipping ship.

These anchors, by the way, are former state prosecutors Frank Fina, Marc Costanzo and Pat Blessington, who apparently have newly reformed attitudes about sexist, racist and homophobic emails after a day of sensitivity training. On the same day Williams announced the training in a statement, he also announced that he'd hired a chief integrity officer, then didn't respond when the Daily News figured out that she had potential conflicts of interest.

Question: When public officials refuse to comment, what exactly do the people in their offices who are paid handsomely to comment on their behalf do?

Well, sometimes they send out (more) news releases about an impressive-sounding lawyer who was named Prosecutor of the Year by the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.

But when you let a scandal drag your office down, the good stuff is overshadowed.

And no points are given to public officials who talk only when it benefits them.

When did they start thinking it was OK to just show up, have their say and then make a dramatic stage exit as Attorney General Kathleen Kane did Tuesday at her latest Porngate news conference at the National Constitution Center? Public service isn't a pageant - although in Kane's defense, her white suit was on point.

What we need is less performance and more accountability - and that includes answering for actions or inactions. See me waving, MIA City Commissioner Anthony Clark? Probably not, because no one knows where you are.

Partly I blame the public, for voting for these jokers (I'm waving again, Clark).

Partly I blame my own tribe, journalists. We don't always push as hard as we should. Proof of that is how Chicago journalists failed to dig into the story about the police shooting.

Some of that can be chalked up to the crumbling state of journalism, where each day the number of watchdogs dwindles. Tomorrow, 46 supertalented journalists at 801 Market are leaving - so maybe that's why this is weighing so heavy on me right now, why a no-comment doesn't just strike me as a terse dismissal but a potential abuse of power increasingly going unchecked.

Journalists are losing, of course. Jobs they love. Missions to which they've committed their lives.

But the real losers are you, the public, because unchecked power breeds corruption.

No comment?

No dice.


Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas