I have to consider, about every other day on my job, that I work for someone who
has been elected to office--who the people have put a trust in. Moreover, that
someone is working for a federal government that, for better or worse, is the
government that has been established by the people and our Constitution. And
it's a weighty responsibility.
- 38 year-old press secretary with six years experience
While a great deal of research has been devoted to understanding the practices
of the media, especially in the political arena, far fewer studies have examined
those who supply information to them. This study addresses that imbalance by
developing the principle lines of research and theory related to one such
supplier: the congressional press secretary. It examines the relationships the
press secretaries have with the Member of Congress they serve, and with the
media they subsidize.
Although policy positions and issue stances come directly from the Member, the
messages leading to and describing those choices are significantly gerrymandered
by the press secretary. The words attributed to Members shared in speeches,
newsletters, or "on-the-record" comments, for example, may not be that Member's
words at all; rather they are frequently the words, verbatim, of the press
secretaries. Also, in their role as a proxy for individual Members of Congress,
the press secretaries act as gatekeepers, determining what information to share
with, and to hold from, reporters--thus they have command over news shared with
The position of "Congressional press secretary" has, only in recent decades,
become a fully designated post on Capitol Hill. Twenty-five years ago only 16%
of the House offices employed a full time "press person;" by 1986, however,
that number increased to 76% (Cook, 1989), and current Congressional staff
listings show 97% of House offices employ a full time press secretary (Bruce &
Downes, 1995). Today, this group of Capitol Hill communication managers is
responsible for almost all communications with the mass media, and often act as
head council to the Member on matters of communication policy.
To date, only four studies have utilized the Congressional press secretaries as
units of analysis. The first, in 1989, comprises a chapter in Cook's Making
Laws and Making News: Media Strategies in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In it Cook describes the press secretaries as:
young men, unmarried and educated. 64 percent were male; the average age was
31; only 33 percent were married; and all but 3 percent had graduated from
college with 42 percent having done some sort of graduate work. . . . They are
also locals with 59 percent of them coming from the same state and 35 percent
from the same district as the representative for whom they work. Like most
House staffers, they are not permanent congressional bureaucrats; on average,
those surveyed had been on the job a little more than two years. But they do
differ from other House staffers by their professionalism. They spend most of
their time on press-related matters; they estimate only 36 percent is taken up
by other functions. Most also had previous journalistic experience. . . . In
addition 41 percent had majored in journalism in college.
Cook estimated each press secretary sends an average of 85 press releases per
year, 35 radio actualities, and a smattering of video press releases;
additionally these individuals send postal patron newsletters and targeted
mailings to demographically segmented constituent groups. If multiplied by 440
(i.e., the number of offices housing the Members, plus the five offices housing
House delegates), Cook's estimate suggests a substantial information output,
from Capitol Hill, to regions across the nation. His numbers indicate, for
example, that nearly 40,000 press releases leave Capitol Hill each year. Cook's
study also tested the assumption that House members are interested in gaining
media attention on television and in pursuing the national limelight, against
his own that the press secretaries focus on local media, particularly print.
The results confirmed Cook's hypothesis.
The second study, in 1991, in which the press secretaries had served as units of
analysis comprised a chapter in Hess' Live from Capitol Hill: Studies of
Congress and the Media. In it Hess continued the pattern he had started in 1977
when he began a series for the Brookings Institute called "Newswork." This
series examined the role of the media in Washington, D.C. and, in turn, focused
on "players" such as agency-level press officers, bureau reporters, and--as
indicated herein--press secretaries.
Hess' chapter on the press secretaries provides a descriptive profile similar to
Cook's. In addition it explores the degree of satisfaction these individual
have with their jobs (they like them), and gives an overview of the press
secretaries' daily activities (which closely paralleled Cook's). Also, Hess
contrasts the roles of those press secretaries serving the Senate versus those
serving the House. Here he found the two groups showed no outstanding
differences across most variables; House press secretaries, however, tended to
be younger and to earn a bit less than those in the Senate. Finally, Hess
(unlike Cook) used party affiliation as a variable, and found no meaningful
differences between the way Democratic and Republican press secretaries practice
Bruce & Downes Study
The third study, a conference paper, in which the press secretaries served as
units of analysis (Bruce & Downes, 1995) focused on the press secretaries'
beliefs about the media. It found that 96% believe the news media set the news
agenda, and that the press secretaries adhere to a "bullet theory" of media
effects. An index of negativity also showed the press secretaries hold the
media in fairly low regard: roughly two-thirds believe the media are partisan,
cultivate a view of the world that is at odds with reality, and do not present a
balanced view--an ironic finding since a great number of press secretaries
worked previously as journalists.
The fourth and final study in which these individuals served as units of
analysis (Downes, 1998) examined the press secretaries in their roles as public
relations professionals. It suggested that the press secretaries, as they
mature in their position, are likely to serve in the Congressional office's
"inner circle" (i.e., dominant coalition) playing a role as strategic
communication and policy planners for the congressional office; have a
relationship with the press that is neither adversarial nor friendly, but rather
is based on "guarded honesty" ; and tend to practice a "press agency" model
of public relations--i.e., a model described by some as "propagandistic" that
"seeks media attention in (almost) any way possible" (Grunig, p. 403).
Fox & Hammond Study
Prior to the publication of these four works, Fox & Hammond (1977, p. 91) noted
the growth and increased specialization the press secretaries were starting to
bring to Capitol Hill when they wrote that while "press matters are, in many
offices, handled by the AA and (while) Congress continues to be a milieu that
encourages generalists, specialization is nevertheless increasing. . . . There
are more press secretaries than ever before on House staffs."
The study has one overriding question: How do press secretaries view their role
in the congressional office? Preliminary answers to this question came from a
focus group, conducted in April 1994, with a theoretical sample of eight current
and former press secretaries. Collectively these respondents represented
approximately 75 years of Capitol Hill experience, worked for both Republicans
and Democrats, and represented a geographically diverse set of Congressional
districts. A second qualitative data set, gathered in May, 1996, consisted of
17 one-on-one, semi-structured, interviews with currently practicing press
secretaries. The script utilized for the interviews was built from the
contextual data generated during the focus group, and focused on the press
secretaries' relationships with the Members and with the media.
Finally, a survey instrument was built from the clarifying data generated from
the interviews. Its questionnaire utilized a Likert scale for which a score of
"1" indicated the highest level of agreement to the question asked, and a "5"
indicated the highest level of disagreement. The survey tested hypotheses
suggested by the interviews.
For the survey, a total of 440 questionnaires were distributed, by hand, to each
of the House's 435 Representative's offices, and to each of its five Delegate
offices. In total, 204 offices (46%) contacted me after receiving the
questionnaire. Roughly 6% indicated that it was against their office's policy
to participate in such surveys, while 40% (175 offices) returned completed
questionnaires. This response rate, relative to others which had used
self-administered questionnaires (Cook, 1986; Hess, 1991; Bruce & Downes, 1995)
was the highest. Of the previous three, the Bruce & Downes' analysis had
collected the most responses, 132 (30%)--43 fewer than this study.
The findings are divided into two sections. The first discusses the
relationship the press secretaries have with the Member of Congress they serve
(an area neglected in earlier studies), and the second with the media they
subsidize (and area in need of further clarification). Eight themes, generated
from the focus group and interviews, are highlighted, beginning with the
"babysitter" theme and ending with the "wave model" theme. A hypothesis for
each of the eight themes is then tested and discussed.
Relationship Between the Press Secretary and the Member of Congress
One focus group participant described her job as that of a "babysitter
sometimes"--another as a "babysitter all the time." The group talked about
receiving and responding to calls "at four in the morning" from the Members for
whom they work, and about delivering bad news to the media so the Member would
not have to. The participants were resigned to, rather than resentful toward,
this role. The following data, shared during the focus group by a former press
secretary of one nation's most prominent Members of Congress illustrates the
"press secretary as babysitter" theme:
(The Member) would wear a white shirt and go on camera and you basically
couldn't see him; it was like nothing from the neck up. And I told him one day,
'Look, I do TV for you and you've got to wear a blue shirt--otherwise I'm not
letting you on camera anymore.' He believed me and (he) smuggled a blue shirt
out of his house and into my car while I was visiting his house so I could take
it to the office
. . . . It hung in the office for three years--and I made him change every
he went on television.
Following is an index incorporated into the survey which examined the "press
secretary as babysitter" theme.
The "Babysitter" Index
Hypothesis: The press secretary has an intensely personal relationship
with the Member.
Questions: (1) I'm involved with the Member's life; I know well his/her
moods, values, and personal struggles. (mean=2.40)
(2) I worry about the Member taking good care of his/her health, both
physical and mental. (mean=2.33)
(3) The Member confides in me and trusts that when he says "inside
these walls" stays inside them. (mean=1.40)
Index Mean: 2.04
Discussion: The average score of the three questions (mean=2.04) suggests
these individuals are intricately involved with the lives of the Members they
serve--in the same manner perhaps as a parent would be with a child. Also, the
index falls within a "liberally acceptable" level; thus, it generally
supports the "press secretary as babysitter" theme.
Interestingly, the mean for question 3 falls almost a full point closer to the
"strongly agree" part of the scale than did the mean for questions 1 and 2.
This disparity suggests that while the press secretaries truly "serve" the
Member, they also view their work, within itself, to be important. While they
perceive that they have an "inside view" to the Member's life (questions 1 and
2), they believe more strongly that they--besides knowing about the Member's
life--also act as that Member's "trusted friend" (question 3).
These data suggest that while the press secretaries may put their ego on hold
when dealing with the Member, they house a strong ego themselves--for example,
they view their role as a close confidant to be more prevalent than their role
as someone who is simply "involved" with that Member's life.
Subservient and Superior--Simultaneously
The press secretaries' lead a schizophrenic existence for, while they take
excessively "good care" of "their boss," (the term the vast majority use when
referring to the Member for whom they work) they are simultaneously
"subservient" and "superior" to this person: these individuals babysit--but
willingly take orders from "the baby." And willingly accept this role.
Not once, did a press secretary criticize his or her boss' decisions (political
or otherwise) as bad, unfair, or mean-spirited; rather they seemed to defer to
their boss' wishes--even at the expense of their own beliefs. One press
secretary's remarks, generated during the focus group, illustrated this
acquiescence: "I'd come home a few times and something will happen in the news
and my wife will ask me what the Member thinks. And I'll tell her
what the Member things. And she says, 'Well, what do you agree with that?' And
I'll say 'Does it matter?'"
Another press secretary, in discussing the group's disassociation from
themselves and from their beliefs, in order to better associate them with those
of the Member, reinforced the same theme and said:
I think the hardest thing, especially when I've encountered new press
secretaries, was they couldn't divorce their own personal feelings from what
they had to do for the boss. They had to forget that they didn't exist--that
they were actually their boss, and they were also their boss'
spouse . . .and play both roles, constantly, all the time.
Following is an index incorporated into the survey which examined the
The "Subserviency" Index
Hypothesis: The press secretaries are extremely subservient to the Member.
Questions: (1) While the office, to some extent, operates as a "team," the
Member isn't really a part of it--he/she is more like the "owner" overseeing
it all. (mean=3.26)
(2) What the Member wants from me the Member gets from me--no questions
(3) The Member's job is significantly more important than anyone else's in
the office. (mean=1.50)
Index Mean: 2.51
Discussion: While this index generally failed to demonstrate synergy between its
questions (perhaps the best we can say is that a positive relationship exists
between the three), it does suggest that the press secretaries view themselves
not as players working on a team under the guise of a removed "owner" (question
1)--nor as someone to whom they ask, "how high would you like me to jump?"
(question 2). Rather, they see the Member more as an admirable "manager" of
their team--a manager for whom they play hard everyday, for whom they're anxious
to work, and without whom their job would not exist.
Re. Question 1: The higher than normal level of disagreement could, perhaps, be
attributed to the wording of question which may have been perceived as
double-barrelled--i.e., the question may have been better stated as two
inquires: (1) "The office to some extent operates as a 'team,'" and (2) "The
Member acts as owner of the team.
Re. Question 2 and 3: Although the press secretaries may put their ego on hold
when dealing with the Member, they house a strong ego themselves--for example,
while they recognize that the Member is the most important player on their team
(question 3), they also see themselves and/or others in their office as
intricate members of that team who, with the Member, make the ship run (question
This concept of "subserviency" sprung from strong suggestions throughout the
qualitative data of a heartfelt respect for the Member--of a firm belief on the
part of the press secretaries in the integrity of their boss. Following is an
index incorporated into the questionnaire which examined this "high respect"
The "Respect" Index
Hypothesis: The press secretary has a high level of respect for the Member for
whom he/she works.
Questions: (1) In terms of integrity, the Member has more than most anyone
I've ever met. (mean=1.64)
(2) The Member is fundamentally a high-quality individual. (mean=1.32)
(3) The Member has "good moral values." (mean=1.34)
Index Mean: 1.43
Discussion: These data, as indicated by high levels of agreement for the index's
three questions as well as an extremely high alpha, show firm support for this
"respect" notion. The bottom line: despite their role as babysitter, despite
the subserviency they display, and despite the call to put their egos on hold,
the press secretaries possess an unwaveringly high regard for the Member they
While exploring the concept of "subserviency to the Member," a closely related
theme--the concept of "ultimate loyalty" to the Member--emerged. This notion,
from the literature on moral ethics, suggests that while we are loyal to many
things (our family, our job, our friends), we are ultimately loyal to just one
of those things--above the others. Following is an index incorporated into the
questionnaire which examined the "ultimate loyalty" theme.
The "Ultimate Loyalty" Index
Hypothesis: The press secretary's ultimate loyalty belongs only to the Member.
Questions: (1) Once the Member has made up his/her mind on an issue, my
opinion doesn't matter--even if I vehemently disagree with the position
(2) I have my opinions; the Member has his/hers and, in my work, only the
Member's matter. (mean=2.24)
(3) The first thing a press secretary must learn is--as far as the work is
concerned--to put his/her political beliefs aside. (mean=3.13)
Index: Ultimate Loyalty
Index Mean: 2.27
Discussion: While there is little doubt the Member's beliefs/opinions drive the
press secretaries' actions at the office, the responses to this index's
questions suggest the press secretaries view their own beliefs/opinions as
important too. It appears the press secretaries are quick to admit their
"respect" for their Member, but are less quick to proclaim their "ultimate
loyalty" to that Member--if that ultimate loyalty means they must have no
beliefs exclusive of their boss.
Thus, while the press secretaries hold the Member for whom they work in high
esteem, and while they are the most loyal of employees, they do not admit to
having a supreme internal allegiance to that Member's political
convictions--though they faithfully support those convictions in their
Relationship Between the Press Secretary and the Media
While the press secretaries are conciliatory and universally respectful toward
their boss' wishes, the same does not appear to hold true with their
relationships with the media. One press secretary interviewed described these
relationships as "confrontational," another as "antagonistic." When asked how
the media would describe them, one participant during the focus group responded,
"as flacks, barriers, the ones that won't let you get to the Member." Another
simply said "as spin doctors."
One focus group participant suggested a possible explanation for the group's
inimical relationships with the media: "One of the problems with the press
nowadays is they're always looking (for a scandal); too many want to be like Bob
Woodward. . .they're always writing the worst things instead of writing the good
stories. . . ."
While several respondents stressed that they "needed" the media in order to
communicate with constituents, one forcefully told the focus group moderator
that "they (the media) need us too--don't forget that!" The focus group and
survey data from the Bruce & Downes (1995) study support this "adversarial
theme"--for example, two-thirds of the adjectives the press secretaries chose to
describe how the media perceive them were negative ones such as "hack," "flack,"
and "spin doctor." Nonetheless, the press secretaries recognized that
without the media, they -- simply put -- would not exist and thus shared a
mutualy respectful relationship with them.
To examine more fully the concept of "mutual respect" the notion that "one hand
(the press secretary's) washes the other (the reporter's)" was probed. The
qualitative data strongly supported this notion indicating, for example, that if
a press secretary "helped" a reporter at one point, it would not be uncommon for
that reporter, at a later date, to "help out" the press secretary. To
illustrate, one interviewee summarized how, once recognizing the constraints
reporters are under, it can prove beneficial for the press secretary if he/she
can proactively provide information to a member of the media:
You anticipate the press' needs. Be one step ahead and they are very grateful.
These people (the media) work on a crazy deadline that breathes down their
necks. . . . If the reporter doesn't have access, he's not going to get
anywhere--and I understand that so I try and accommodate it. . . . I think
empathy goes a long way. . . . So we stay in touch--sometimes I call them just
to say 'Hey, we've got this potential story coming up'. . . . You always want
to be as hospitable as you can. I consider myself as a conduit of
information--and it goes both ways.
One former press secretary, reinforcing the same theme, shared this illustrative
There was one particular reporter who I had a great relationship with and I knew
that anything that I told him, off-record, deep-background was not going to get
attributed or come back to our office. And I would call him sometimes and I
would tell him, 'Hey, just a heads up; I know you're very interested in this one
issue and these particular Members aren't going to vote for it because of
thus-and-such. . . .' It kind of angled him and gave him a story.
Involuntary "pay-backs" for favors or tips generated by the press secretary and
provided to a reporter may enhance the relationship between the press secretary
and the media with whom he/she deals most often. One long-term Democrat
described, during his interview, these informal "you wash my hand I'll was
yours" arrangements as characteristic of the mutually beneficial relationship he
shares with the media when he said:
I don't wait for them (the press) to come to me. I pass on a lot of things to
them--especially things that don't involve my boss. . .that gives them a leg-up
on the competition and they, in turn, feel favorably disposed to me.
I think my actions, in many instances, have saved (his boss) from bad publicity.
. . . There have, for example, been instances when the press could have very
easily mentioned my boss in a bad light but left her out of the stories. I
think the service that I provide, giving them tips on other stories, pays
dividends. Therefore, I keep them informed about what's going on. Because of
this relationship. . .they might have the chance, down the road, to give a
favorable mention to the Congresswoman, so they'll call her up, they'll ask for
a quote. . . .
It's just understood in the relationship between press secretaries and the media
that if you can help them, they may help you. . . . (It's) kind of a symbiotic
Following is an index which measured this "hand-washing" notion.
The "Hand-Washing" Index
Hypothesis: The press secretary has a symbiotic relationship with the media.
Questions: (1) The media and I have a symbiotic relationship: I help them,
they help me. (mean=2.14)
(2) Sometimes I'll give a reporter a story and, at a later time, that reporter
will help me out. (mean=2.51)
(3) If a good story's coming up, I'll make a call to a reporter or two to
inform them--even if that story doesn't directly involve my Member.
Index Mean: 2.23
Discussion: Here, the majority of press secretaries agree strongly or agreed
in general with the notion that press secretaries "help-out" reporters--and vice
versa. Thus, the survey data support the qualitative finding that, as a part
of the mutually beneficial/symbiotic relationship, the press secretary's hand
washes the media's--and vice versa.
Note, however, that questions 1 and 3 suggest the initiative to "help" rests
with the press secretary, not with the reporter. Also, question 2, with
which there was more disagreement, suggests the initiative may sometime rest on
the reporter's shoulders. With this distinction in mind, it appears that the
"pay back" for help given rests not with the reporter giving a "heads up" to the
press secretary, on for example a breaking news event, but rather that this
reciprocation take place in some action which would be mutually beneficial to
both the reporter and press secretary--for example, through a reporter choosing
a press secretary's Member as a quotable source for a future story.
While examining these findings, it is paramount to remember that a
"one-hand-washes the other" relationship (or one described as "mutually
beneficial" or "symbiotic") is not the same as a relationship between friends.
To this point, several interviewees stressed that while their relationships with
reporters may be cordial, they were generally not "friendly." To illustrate,
one relatively new press secretary said, "while you want to maintain a
relationship, at the same time you pretty much can't count on the media to be
your friend--especially if you're a Republican, conservative, and freshman .
. . . It's a working relationship--they're never going to be your friend."
The "cordial" nature of the relationship between press secretary and reporter,
however, thrives on "truths shared" between parties. To illustrate, the press
secretaries were asked "If you were teaching a group of undergraduates 'Media
Relations 101' from the perspective of a congressional press secretary, what
would you tell them?" These individuals stressed, first and foremost, that a
press secretary must "never lie" to a reporter. Over a dozen respondents
believed this principle paramount. Four illustrative quotations follow:
Stanley: You just simply cannot lie to a reporter. I've seen people do it for
short-term gain and it turns out to be a disaster. You never win a reporter's
Charlie: Look, you're only as good as your last phone call. The first rule
that any press secretary has to learn, regardless, is two words: never lie.
Don: Be honest; be direct; never be deceitful or never lie to a reporter.
Justin: First rule: never lie. If you lie and you're caught, you're done--and
you're going to get caught. The second rule follows: never be afraid to say,
'I don't know, I'll have to get back to you.' If you aren't one-hundred percent
sure, don't say it because either you're going to be perceived as a liar, or
you're going to be perceived as a person who has to be fact-checked. . . .
Reporters develop certain sources and they'll trust you or they won't.
However, while these individuals were dead-set against "lying," they did not
consider telling an untruth to be the same as "putting one's best side forward,"
or "being sure the reporter knows our side of the story," or answering questions
asked without volunteering additional information which could put the Member in
a bad light. Thus, the press secretaries are honest with reporters and, to an
equal degree, guarded with them.
Several, for example, stressed that it was the reporter's responsibility to ask
not only relevant questions, but to ask "the right" relevant questions. As one
self-assured respondent noted: "We control a great deal of information. If we
don't want people to know something, we don't tell them unless the reporter
knows what to ask."
Some press secretaries described their frustration when a reporter, over time,
simply refused to report his or her boss' interpretation of a story. As a
response, the press secretary occasionally chose to "cut off" such a reporter.
This excerpt from the focus group data illustrates how a press secretary (only
occasionally) might "deal with" a particularly bothersome or supposedly biased
Participant 1: (Describing a certain reporter with whom many of the
participants had interacted) He was so antagonistic! He was so obnoxious!
Moderator: What does that mean, 'to be obnoxious?'
Participant 2: He liked to ask real provocative questions to see if he could
Participant 1: Crack you. Yeah, yeah.
Participant 3: If he had something (i.e., some dirt on the Member) then he was
even a little bit more obnoxious.
Participant 1: We dealt with him though. . . . We cut him off for over a year
and would not even return his calls.
Moderator: But this is jeopardizing this man's career here, his job, right?
Participant 2: Right. . . . And he wouldn't get first crack at the story
Another press secretary to the same point, while discussing how her job could
turn into a 24-hour per day affair, told the story of how she "shut off" a
reporter who, she believed, blatantly integrated a partisan bias into supposedly
So I get home after Sunday church and I'm out in the yard and this reporter
calls me. I'm on the phone 45 minutes with her and I had at least some inkling
of what she was talking about; it was about legislation that we had done. . . .
However, I was not able to quote or discuss with her the dollar figures in the
bill because I didn't have a copy of it in front of me.
I knew the concept of the bill, some of the broad outlines, and some of the
Congressman's logic behind it--the whole nine yards--but I couldn't discuss the
dollar figures. And nothing in that 45-minute conversation ended up in her
newspaper story! It came out as a real slam for the Congressman! And I was
furious with her for doing that.
So we get over that hurdle, and she (the reporter) gets on the phone with the
Congressman and has a half-hour conversation with him--and again doesn't include
any of his comments regarding the reason for the legislation.
So, at some point I stopped taking that reporter's phone calls. Thankfully the
receptionist was able to recognize her voice. . . . And her editor called one
day and said, 'Why aren't you taking this reporter's calls?' And I said, "Well,
we talk to the woman and she doesn't give our side of the
story--maybe you guys ought to consider that'. . . .
Later, both the Congressman and I made a point of mentioning that we weren't too
happy with this particular reporter. As it turned out, her husband was in some
sort of environmental capacity in the state and she was just coming on
pro-environment and just making this whole legislation that we had proposed look
like it was anti-environment.
"What was the end result?," I asked the respondent. She answered, "The end
result was that the bill died in committee." I asked, "How's your relationship
now with that reporter?" She answered, "To this day I still quake when I see
her name." Following is an index incorporated into the questionnaire which
examined the notion of "shutting off" a reporter.
The "Shut-Off" Index
Hypothesis: Occasionally a press secretary will choose to "cut off" a reporter
from the Member.
Questions: (1) If a reporter, over a long period, is mean-spirited and misguided
I'll stop returning his/her calls. (mean=2.80)
(2) If a reporter were--over a year--to completely ignore my side of a story
he/she could loose access to our office. (mean=2.72)
(3) I've "shut of" my communication with a reporter who was consistently
and blatantly biased or antagonistic. (mean=3.06)
Index Mean: 2.87
Discussion: Interestingly, the data show just under half of the press
secretaries agreed or strongly agreed they "cut-off" reporters. Also, the
matrix that suggested that those press secretaries who believed the media saw
them as "hacks, flacks, and spin doctors," also were more inclined, as suggested
by this "shuf-off" index, to block out a media representative (r=.14,
p=.06)--i.e., the correlation between the two variables nearly reached a
On average, 35 respondents gave these questions a "1" indicating that roughly
20% surely carry out this practice; roughly the same percentage, however, gave
the question a "5" indicating that they do not. This spread, reinforced by the
responses' fairly wide standard deviation, suggests the "shutting off" of a
reporter, though is done, is not done universally.
Because the press secretaries work intimately with both the Member and the
media, they form a vital link between the messages that leave Capitol Hill, and
the messages that reach the citizenry. With this in mind, the "power" the press
secretaries have in choosing issues on which to focus their communication
strategies deserves exploration.
The qualitative data in particular suggest that the press secretaries, while not
controlling which issues rise to the front-burner of the nation's policy debate,
attempt to control the degree to which their boss is "involved" with those
issues. The metaphor of a "wave," developed within the focus group, illustrated
The "wave," as described by the press secretaries in both the focus group and
interviews, represents one of many public issues (crime, welfare, taxes, foreign
aid, etc.). The data suggest the Member "rides" a wave (i.e., an issue) when
doing so serves his or her interest and, conversely, avoids waves that might
hurt. To illustrate, a progressive Member might "ride the school lunch program
wave," while a conservative might "ride the capital gains tax cut wave." Hence,
over their course of a term in office, Members of the House are continually
jumping on waves--riding them--and jumping off. A press secretary during the
focus group brought the concept to us when he said:
I find stuff (issues) goes in waves. . .the way stories ebb and flow. You get a
little wave of a particular story and if your boss has an appropriate committee
assignment, or appropriate area of expertise, or appropriate geographical
location you try to catch it. Sometimes you'll just ride-off the back of the
wave (and) nothing will happen. Some other times you'll catch it and ride it .
. . .
Another press secretary concurred that "the wave is a very good metaphor,
because it keeps building upon itself, and you build these layers of credibility
(for you boss)." A third press secretary noted that it takes skill to determine
which waves to "ride" and which to avoid--some are dangerous, others beneficial,
others neutral. He said that while "most of the waves you're going to get (are
going to be) little risers, sometimes waves can be really big and crash into
your head--and you get knuckled under."
Following is an index incorporated into the questionnaire which examined the
The "Wave Theory" Index
Hypothesis: The press secretary does not create news, but rather reacts to
news events already on the nation's agenda.
Questions: (1) I don't put major stories "out there" on the national agenda;
rather, I react to them." (mean=3.80)
(2) I don't know just what it is that churns up an issue and brings it to the
front burner of the nation's consciousness. (mean=3.93)
(3) You "ride" an issue when it's good for your Member and avoid, when you
can, issues that might hurt. (mean=1.88)
Index Mean: 3.20
Discussion: The basic definition of the "Wave Theory," described in the index's
question 3, was strongly supported. Eighty-three percent of respondents gave a
number of "1" or "2" (i.e., they agreed strongly or simply agreed with this
question), while only 15% disagreed or disagreed strongly. These responses,
therefore, offer solid support of the qualitative finding's description of a
"wave model." As noted previously, however, about half of the interview
respondents, while they agreed with this basic definition of the wave model,
claimed such as explanation was, at least in part, simplistic. Perhaps this
qualification entered the minds of the press secretaries when they responded to
questions 1 and 2 (the mean average of which, 3.87, showed more disagreement).
Here exists an interesting dichotomy: while there is strong agreement with the
notion of the wave model in principal, when considerations of whether the press
secretaries themselves can "make waves"--i.e., when the pronoun "I" appeared in
the question (as it did in questions 1 and 2)--there is more disagreement.
A possible explanation for this exists. Recall, as indicated previously, while
the press secretaries may put their ego on hold when dealing with the Member,
they house a strong ego themselves--for example, while the respondents strongly
supported the notion of the "wave model" in general, they were reluctant to
believe that they themselves--though not their colleagues--fell prey to the
limitations inherent in that model which suggests they are unable to "make
I probed the "Wave Model," particularly during interviews, with follow-up
inquiries. In turn, respondents indicated three areas from which "waves" made
their way onto the press secretary's agenda: most often, press secretaries
believed waves came from issues discussed in their Member's committee or
subcommittee assignments; second most often, from issues that had become
salient within their Member's congressional district; and third
most often from their Member's "willingness to speak out" on an issue.
The press secretary and the Member share a special relationship. As the
"manager of the media" the press secretary has the responsibility to "manage"
the portrayals painted for the citizenry--both public and personal--of that
Member. To accomplish this, these individuals seem above all else to require,
for themselves, a foundation of respect for the Member--regardless of whether
others (such as the media and the constituents) share that esteem. While the
occasional press secretary holds the Member in low regard, the vast majority
believe "their boss" has virtue, a good code of conduct, and is at his/her core
an admirable person. Interestingly, the "average constituent"--while he/she
might "like" the Member--most likely would not possess such a level of
With this respect comes an allegiance to that Member's political positions.
With one exception , all respondents with whom I spoke were members of the
same political party as the Member they represented. Thus, common ground exists
between the press secretary's and the Member's political beliefs. On those
issues, however, when the press secretary does not agree with the Member, the
press secretary defends that Member nonetheless--at the office, in dealing with
the media, and in speaking with constituents. This does not suggest, however,
that the press secretary need be a "true follower" in the sense that each view
he/she holds personally will parallel those of the Member.
The respect and high esteem with which the press secretary views the Member
enhances the partnership the two parties share. This "partnership," however, is
best viewed as one in which the Member serves as the "senior" partner and the
press secretary as a junior colleague: the press secretaries willingly and
almost without exception comply with the Member's wishes. This is not to
suggest, however, that they are a chattel to the Member. Rather, they see
themselves as having made the choice to serve the Member--and do so steadily,
readily, with deference, and with hard work.
The study's qualitative data sets suggest that the partnership with the Member
matures, many press secretaries move from a "junior partner" level to a
"counselor" level. Here, more experienced press secretaries tend to either
develop or to be granted more autonomy, additional comfort in approaching the
Member, and an incremental say in determining the office's polices and strategic
focus--i.e., they become part of the dominant coalition.
 Prior to Hess' efforts, most examinations of Washington, D.C. media
consisted of journalists' memories and first person accounts. These writings,
while colorful and anecdotal rich, lacked empirical verification.
 The relationship between the press secretary and reporter thrives on
"truths shared" between the parties. While the press secretaries are dead-set
against "lying," they do not consider telling an untruth to be the same as
"putting one's best side forward," or "being sure the reporter knows our side of
the story," or answering questions without volunteering additional information
which could put the Member in a bad light. Thus, the press secretaries are
honest with reporters and, to an equal degree, guarded with them.
 The "Discussion" sections are intended as critical analyses of each block's
information. Their purpose is to demonstrate what the block, in whole or in
part, is "saying" to us.
 Since never before had the questions--or indices--been developed to examine
the issues raised in this study, "liberally acceptable alphas" (i.e, those at
between .50 and .65) were not automatically thrown out. Rather, they were
carefully scrutinized and, when a plausible explanation for the alpha was
apparent, they were accepted--albeit with an accompanying explanation. Simply
put, since this was the first time questions such as these had been asked, I did
not want to dismiss an alpha at the "liberally acceptable" level without first
offering an explanation as to why that alpha might still prove insightful. In
all such cases, slight semantic refinements would, I suspect, have raised the
alpha to the .65 level or higher.
 The survey's question was, "In your opinion, what words would a typical
journalist or reporter use to describe the typical press secretary?"
 Additionally questions 1 and 3 show the strongest bivariate correlation in
the group (r=.02; p=less than .05).
 While the Downes & Bruce (1995) study and others indicated no significant
difference in media coverage of Republican and Democrats, four respondents, at
different points in their interviews, brought up the notion of a "liberal bias
in the media." All were Republicans. One conservative Republican, on his
questionnaire, wrote a note summarizing his frustrations: "The national media
establishment (networks, The Washington Post, NY Times, Newsweek, Time, etc.)
are cynical, biased, way left, lazy, and fundamentally dishonest. Another
wrote, "As a former member of the press, and having been in this town for ten
years, I am astonished at the repulsion that most reporters have for the GOP."
 When the term "committee" is used throughout the dissertation, I am
implying related subcommittee considerations as well.
 A Senate press secretary who is a registered independent but works for a
 The terms "junior partner" and "counselor" are ones I am using; they are
not designated positions on Capitol Hill.