Commissioners order 'truth' squads to rebuild their image
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade's county commission has trotted out a new weapon to whitewash its abysmal image.
First Amendment, look out.
The commission this month unanimously directed County Manager George Burgess to have the Communications Department monitor all media in English, Spanish and Creole for inaccurate portrayals of county government - read here "the county commission" - and then meet with the media "in an attempt to secure a prompt clarification of the inaccuracy."
It should be noted that the Communications Department also provides advertising to virtually all media outlets and thus is in a unique position to hold a very large economic club over the heads of very small media that might dare to be critical of the county - again, read here "county commission."
Monitoring 70-plus publications and every radio and television news report "relating to local government" on about 40 stations is not a simple task - especially when the commission requires monitoring in three languages. How many new employees will that take? Five? 10? More? And how many hours a week will be devoted to meetings with media to badger them into retractions?
It's no secret the commission's reputation is on the skids. About when the commission was ordering the manager to pore through media looking for things the county doesn't agree with, Commissioner Natacha Seijas was issuing a report on the county's Achilles' heel: contracts. Her dubious point was that the only real contract problem the commission has is the way Mayor Carlos Alvarez and the media have portrayed it.
If you don't like the message, it must be the messenger's fault, right?
Ms. Seijas was the only commissioner who didn't vote for scrutinizing the media and sending out truth squads - she was absent.
The commissioners' resolution left no doubt where they think their own bad image originates.
The resolution starts: "Whereas, radio, television and the print media regularly produce programs and publish articles which discuss the various events, activities and policies of the county, its departments, officials and employees; and whereas, certain of these programs and articles contain inaccurate information; and whereas, the residents of Miami-Dade County should have a fair and accurate picture of the activities of the county and its officials and employees ..."
The county manager is thus being ordered to get a county-approved vision of government onto the air and into print - a no-win position for a serious manager. He can succeed only by using the county's advertising clout to push the media around. And if he fails, beware the commission's wrath.
The commission gave Mr. Burgess until February to spell out just how the media will be monitored and chastised.
But he need not do heavy-duty research. There are ample models for media monitoring with government followup. The closest is in Havana, where Fidel Castro four decades ago perfected the technique - perhaps many of our commissioners remember. Hitler and Stalin also did it well. They're working on another model in Venezuela this very minute.
But while the commission's action requires the Communications Department to pick through the media, all that pickiness may not be vital - commissioners will promptly call when anything offends them and will make sure the department hauls the media onto the carpet.
Really, commissioners' concerns are all that matters. County professionals have managed to handle criticism with equanimity for decades. Commissioners aren't so surefooted.
In fact, it's a darn good thing the county's truth squads don't yet exist. After this column, I'd be expecting a visit any minute now.
I just hope it's not a kneecap job.