2002-11-02 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

The sniper case in Virginia and the media circus surrounding the case once again raise the twin questions of what the public has a right to know and who has the obligation to provide that information to the public.

The proliferation of 24/7 cable news has only exacerbated the problems raised by those questions.

Police Chief Charles Moose often made the point that the media was making his job (catching the sniper) harder, if not impossible.

Moose, who often seemed as if he were over his head, did not like the fact that the media was interviewing eyewitnesses even before his police officers could get to them. He did not like the fact that the media was reporting on events and evidence that had been leaked from his own command. Moose would have rejoiced if the media had packed up, gone home and left him and his investigators alone. At least, right up to the end, when he needed the media to help him find the suspects – something that the media did admirably.

Did the public have the right to know about the infamous tarot card message? Did the media have the right to interview eyewitnesses to the shootings? Did the media have the right to pass along information that it received from sources inside the investigation? Moose would say no. He would argue that the media interfered with his investigation, made his job harder. I would say yes, that the media was only doing its job – that it was providing vital information to a public that had the right to that information.

The dance between the press and government agencies has always been more like roller derby than like a waltz.

There is lots of evidence to support the contention that agencies use the media when it wants to leak information, what it calls "trial balloons," or when it suits its purpose. On the other hand, government regularly restricts access to those who do have the information simply because it can do so.

While most people point to the New York City Police Department as the prime example of this process, I have found the Board of Education and its successor, the Department of Education, to be far worse.

In fact, since newsman Michael O’Looney took over as the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information (DCPI), the NYPD has been far more forthcoming than any other city agency.

The Department of Education is another story. There should be no question that parents and other residents have the right to know what is going on in its schools. It is obvious that the new school chancellor, Joel Klein, does not agree with that simple concept.

The chancellor has ordered that no school personnel are to speak with the media. All statements to the press are to come through the Public Information Office (PIO), which is now located at the Tweed Courthouse in Manhattan.

Matt Bromme, the District 27 Superintendent, cannot talk to the press. Bromme is a high-level executive, earning more than $100 thousand a year, but he is not allowed to comment on issues that directly impact the students and the schools in his district. He has to pass comment to Margie Feinberg or some other PR flack at the Department of Education.

School principals (mid-level managers who earn upwards of $90 thousand) are not allowed to speak to the press. Assistant principals are not allowed to speak. Teachers are not allowed to speak.

We recently received some information that the new principal of Beach Channel High School had sent letters to 16 and 17-year-old students, effectively kicking them out of school.

We called the principal for comment. She could not comment. We were referred to the Department of Education. We called John Lee, the superintendent of Queens High Schools. Lee, who is the highest high school official in the borough, could not comment. His office referred us to the Department of Education.

We called the Department of Education. A woman named Toni answered the phone and took all the information. She said that somebody would get back to me. Two days later, I was still waiting for an answer. Then I got a call from David Chai, the man who Klein had just appointed as head of the department. He was once a PR flack for President Clinton and more recently for the Governor of California.

Chai asked me what I wanted. I told him and asked for comment. He said that he would get back to me. I was still waiting two days later.

Finally, Margie Feinberg, who is a holdover from the old administration, called. She issued a one-line statement

"It was a mistake," she said. "Those letters were meant for 18 and 19-year olds."

End of statement. End of story.

Does the public have the right to hear the principal on this issue? Does it have the right to hear the man in charge of the principal?

Of course it does.

On the second day of school this school year, a young boy who attends PS 114 was not on the proper bus and his parents went to the school to find out what happened to him.

An altercation ensued. The school’s principal said that the child’s mother assaulted her. The mother says that the principal blew her off for 45 minutes and then told her, "You probably do not belong in this school in the first place."

I called the principal for comment. After a day or so, I got a call saying that she could not comment. I called the school superintendent. His office told me that he could not comment, to contact the Department of Education. I called them. I did not get a call back for several days.

I again called the principal and left word that I was going with a story that would not be favorable to her or to how she is running the school.

She called me back and said that she could not comment, to contact Margie Feinberg. I told her that I had called and received no call back from that office. She said that she would call them.

Fifteen minutes later I got a call from Feinberg. Her only comment was, "I cannot comment because it is a police matter."

Does that sound to you like a cover-up? It certainly does to me.

Do the parents whose kids go to PS 114 have the right to know what went on that day? Of course they do.

It is only the Department of Education that does not want you to know. And, sometimes, the NYPD. And, the DEC and the DEP.

In fact, most public agencies have departments whose job it is to keep the truth from the public rather than to disseminate it.

The dance goes on.

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