Zen and the Art of Press Management

What is the sound of no phone ringing?

The story I wanted to write this week was about judicial appointments. I wondered whether President George W. Bush, whose controversial judicial nominees have disrupted the U.S. Senate, has looked with envy at what his little brother has been doing down here in Florida.

I was going to point out how Jeb Bush had quietly put into place a mechanism by which ultraconservative judges routinely fill vacancies on the state's appeals courts. He accomplished this back in 2001 by having the state legislature change a few rules. Specifically, the governor was given the power to appoint the people who nominate judicial candidates, thus ensuring that all nominees sent to him for consideration stood on the "right" side of gay marriage, school vouchers, and so on.

As a result we have First District Court of Appeal (DCA) Justice Paul Hawkes, who worked for Bush and former House speaker Tom Feeney; Second DCA Justice Charles Canady, a former Republican congressman and Bush's general counsel; Third DCA Justice Frank Shepherd here in Miami, who was the local managing attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative activist organization; and my personal favorite, Third DCA Justice Leslie Rothenberg, who, while running for State Attorney, signed a Christian Family Coalition pledge opposing gay marriage and supporting religious displays on public property.

Fred Harper

That's the story I wanted to write, which would have included efforts to get a comment from Jeb Bush or a spokesman. That would have required the cooperation of Jacob DiPietre, who runs the governor's press office in Tallahassee. And that was a problem. Months ago I forever gave up on dealing with DiPietre and his staff.

I'd been seeking comment from Bush regarding Rothenberg's appointment. But forget about a quote from the governor; I didn't even get so much as a peep out of DiPietre. And I'm not talking about a quick call I made on deadline. This was more than three weeks of calls, sometimes daily. Nada. Zip.

Initially I was stunned. Then I was fuming mad. This had to be the most arrogant and unresponsive publicly funded press office I'd ever experienced. I thought back on all the contentious stories I'd written about government agencies big and small, as well as police and fire departments, the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, and I couldn't remember ever having dealt with a public-information office that simply didn't return a call -- ever.

Dumb idea. One quick call from some pimply-faced intern with a "no comment" and they would have been rid of me. Instead they became the story: "The Press Office That Refuses to Return Calls." Soon, though, anger and frustration evolved into fascination. I was like one of those people confronted by Chauncey Gardiner's enigmatic quietude in Jerzy Kosinski's book Being There. What did the press office's silence mean? Were they offended? Was New Times not worthy of a response? Or was it something deeper? Were they trying to tell me there are no answers, only more questions?

Maybe I was dealing with a real swami here, so I decided to learn more about this Jacob DiPietre. The facts of his life were easy enough to uncover. He graduated from Northwest Missouri State University in 2000, worked briefly for a newspaper, then for a congressman named Sam Graves, until Bush hired him as his spokesman. At the tender age of 27 he earns $70,000 overseeing seven full-time employees and a budget of $554,509.

But I needed more. I wanted to know what motivates DiPietre to make the decisions he makes, answer the calls he answers -- or not. A major breakthrough came when I unearthed a story about him in the January 2005 issue of the Northwest Missourian newspaper. DiPietre revealed to the paper that before his life's passion was serving Republican politicians, he had lived to ignite school spirit in others. In fact DiPietre was his school's spirit. At the university he would climb into a big fuzzy cat suit with an oversize head and transform himself into Bobby the Bearcat, the school's mascot. Whoa.

"Jacob wasn't one of those guys you would think would be a real spunky Bobby," John Yates, DiPietre's cheerleading coach, told the Missourian. "Once he put on the outfit, though, he wasn't Jacob; he became Bobby and was very outgoing."

Let me back up. Before taking on the DiPietre challenge, I was simply a reporter trying to secure a comment from the governor's press office for a December 9, 2004 story about Rothenberg's candidacy for the Third DCA. Did the governor know she'd signed a pledge opposing gay marriage? Did he care that this might affect her ability to hear cases involving that volatile issue?

When I didn't receive a return call by deadline, I shrugged it off. I was busy; they must be busy. The governor ended up appointing Rothenberg. More than a month later I called again in preparation for a follow-up story. When DiPietre's office didn't call back within a couple of days, I decided to keep a call journal. That's when I attempted to discern a greater meaning. (As an afterthought I faxed a February 15 public-records request to the Governor's Office of Appointments to review all the letters and e-mail messages people sent in about Rothenberg. Mainly I wanted to see if anyone shared my concerns.)

Feb. 16 -- I call, leave message with person who answers phone. "Korten with New Times. Seeking comment about governor's appointment of Leslie Rothenberg to Third DCA. Thanks." Person asks re: my deadline. I say tomorrow.

Feb. 17, 18, and 22 -- Tomorrow turns into yesterday. Call, leave same message. Repeat. Clearly a contest of wills.

Feb. 24 -- Story published. Call again, leave message for DiPietre: "Just wanted to say hi, see what he's up to."

Office kid who answers phone: "I think I talked to you the other day."

Me: "Probably."

Kid: "I think we still have your old message around here...."

Me: "I bet you do."

Kid: "Well, he's out of the office right now, but I'll make sure he gets it."

Feb. 28 -- Call again. Leave message with woman: "Just wondering what he thought of best director award going to Clint Eastwood."

Woman: "Oooh-kay."

Mar. 4 -- Call Governor's Appointment Office re: public records request. Office director: "Celeste Lewis."

Me: "Just checking on status of my records request."

Lewis: "I'm sorry, we have no authority to release records. Have you contacted the governor's press secretary?"

Me: "Why, yes, as a matter of fact I have." Ask if she'd call them for me. After all, not responding to a records request is a violation of state law, hate to get our lawyer involved.

Lewis: "I don't appreciate you threatening us with a lawyer."

1 p.m. -- Call DiPietre's office, leave message with kid that it sure looks like office ignored my public-records request. Major no-no. Should I get our lawyer involved? (Like saying that). He promises to pass message along.

1:40 p.m. -- Phone rings. Woman from gov's press office: "Hi, I understand you were seeking a comment for a story, and I also understand you were inquiring about a public-records request?"

I've passed through the gates of enlightenment. Finally figured out what gets them to call back -- lawsuit threat. I'm now ready to descend from the mountain. I ask her to hold while I savor the moment. Tell her it seems they responded only because of words "public records" and "lawyer." Ask her name. "I'm not a quotable source," she answers.

"Says you," I tell her. "I'm taking anything I can get."

She repeats: "I'm not a quotable source" but adds she will pass request for comment to DiPietre. Asks me to e-mail records request to a woman named Jennifer Grice.

Grice responds: "Thank you for sending your request. As you may or may not know, our office is responsible for handling media requests, and all requests should be directed to us.... As to this specific request, I'll start the process for you and let you know as soon as it is complete."

It took until April 12 to actually get the documents. Never did talk to DiPietre. I remembered something he told his campus newspaper. When asked what it was like dealing with reporters, he said, "Reporting is reporting is reporting. Their job is to report the news." I realized my nemesis had uttered a koan disguised as an unintelligent quote. Note to self: Read DiPietre press releases for further hidden clues to enlightenment.

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