All the world loves a show. There’s a song about that, right? Razzle dazzle, something something flash, bamboozala. Truer words were never spoken. And I know the perfect place to go when you want to see a show, complete with sleight of hand and hair so slick it no longer moves—no, not Vegas—that’s too expensive, and watching people defy the laws of gravity and common decency gets old after awhile.
No, when you want to experience the big bamboozala, look to the fresh-faced, upstanding public information officer employed by your local police or sheriff’s department. Now, let’s start by examining the title “public information officer,” which those of us who have the pleasure of actually working with these “public information officers” on a regular basis might recognize as a slight misnomer. Their real goal seems not to dispense information to the public, so much as it is to spoon-feed selected dribbles consisting of victories for the department. Wanting to control your image is nothing new. Just look at North Korea. They’ve got that, along with everything else, on lockdown.
So you can imagine my surprise when Tony Cipolla, PIO for the Sheriff’s Department, announced via a press release that a sheriff’s deputy by the name of John Pozdolski was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic violence. I’d love to pretend that the part of me that dances with puppies on rainbows believed the Sheriff’s Department was turning over a new leaf, entering an era of transparency, perhaps brought about by the fact that their new PIO is a former newsman and understands the value of keeping the public informed. But I’d be lying, and that’s something I’d prefer to leave to the professionals.
My first thought was really, “Ha ha, I wonder which media agency they just screwed over.” Because the aforementioned PIOs have this habit of dishing out a story to the public as soon as a news outlet puts in a request for information that reveals it’s looking into something nefarious. You can particularly tell when the press release is about something that didn’t exactly happen that morning or the night before. We’re talking days. Weeks. Sometimes even months.
That practice is essentially the equivalent of pulling the skeletons out of the closet and giving them a good shake as soon as some hardworking journalist has a hand on the doorknob. And it stinks. The kicker is that the officers then like to pretend they willingly shared their information with the public.
“The Sheriff’s Office takes these matters seriously,” read Cipolla’s press release. And I’m sure they do. I’m sure they take this stuff real seriously when they’ve got the media breathing down their necks and a clock ticking down the hours until those damned, no-good journalists blow the whistle on whatever they’ve been keeping a tight lid on—in this case, the fact that a deputy is on paid administrative leave after he allegedly (“possibly,” is the way the department put it) got a bit violent two weeks ago.
Sure enough, as it turned out, someone over at calcoastnews.com did have a story in the works. Don’t get me wrong: I love to watch the competition take a beating. But I’d rather it be at our own hands than at the hands of a sneaky “public information officer.” A functioning democracy hinges on a democratic distribution of information, not controlled bursts designed to minimize impact.
“But Shredder,” you say, “he put out the press release eventually. Who cares about the circumstances?”
To that, reader, I reply: It’s not an easy task spending days or weeks or possibly months poring through documents, gathering quotes, tying up your loose ends, all to shine some light on a truth that people in power would rather be kept dark and quiet. The financial payoff is negligible. All you get at the end of all that hard work is the pride of breaking a story and the hope that someone is brought to justice because of it. And if PIOs like Cipolla continue to put out press releases not because they think the public deserves to know something, but because they’re backed into a corner—why else would it come out now?—and are looking to water down someone’s story, what incentive do the rest of us have to keep looking? Because the truth is, whether we break these stories or not, if we didn’t light a fire under these agencies’ behinds, nothing would ever happen. You would never know that a sheriff’s deputy was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. And isn’t that the kind of information you want to have about someone you’re paying to protect you?
You probably never would have heard about James Lesperance, the current deputy who was arrested a couple of years back and charged for DUI in connection with a couple of yahoos who were allegedly romping around Arroyo Grande beating up pedestrians. (He pleaded no contest, if memory serves.) Or, for that matter, you wouldn’t have heard about firefighter John Ryan Mason, who wasn’t even arrested until after New Times ran a story about his alleged bar brawl in SLO.
So bravo, Tony. You put on one hell of a show. I guess we can look forward to being razzled and dazzled in the future—even if we’re not asking for it. Or is that especially when we’re asking for it? ∆
The Shredder styles its hair with axle grease. Send fashion tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.