On the Inside Looking Out  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2009

On the Inside Looking Out   

Former ABC correspondent Geoff Morrell sees the news differently as the Pentagon’s spokesman. Online Exclusive posted 2/11/09 10:25a.m.

By Jamie McIntyre
     

Related reading:
   » Defense Secretary Robert Gates' Golden Rules for a Press Secretary

I t's Thursday morning at the Pentagon and Geoff Morrell needs accurate information, fast. A front-page story in the New York Times is the latest to fan tensions between Moscow and Washington. Anonymous American officials are blaming Russia for Kyrgyzstan's decision to evict the U.S. military from a vital air base needed to resupply troops in Afghanistan.

As chief spokesman, Morrell needs facts to feed a Pentagon press corps hungry for context and detail.

It's a hunger he knows well, having covered the White House for four years as an ABC News television correspondent.

But while as a reporter he had to press reluctant sources for scraps of information, as Pentagon press secretary he has the kind of access reporters only dream of. He strides into a third-floor office to get a top-level gut check directly from his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

For a spokesperson, access, and therefore credibility, is the coin of the realm. And Gates, Morrell says, insisted from the first job interview that his spokesman have an inside seat. "I went in expecting it would be me selling him on hiring me for the job," Morrell says. Instead, he says Gates told him, "It is important you spend a lot of time with me in this job."

"It was music to my ears," Morrell says. "As a prospective spokesperson, that's exactly what you want to hear."

Gates went on to lay out what he wanted in a Pentagon press secretary (see Gates' Golden Rules): someone who is not combative but rather cooperative and helpful; someone willing to give candid advice in private; and someone not afraid to say, "I don't know."

"That's a perfectly acceptable answer," Morrell says, and one Gates applies to great effect. "People are disarmed when somebody admits they don't know something."

The move from journalist to government spokesman is not one Morrell agonized over.

In 2007, as his contract at ABC was ending, he says he began to think about expanding his horizons beyond the business of journalism."I think everybody who is in journalism covering one of these buildings always thinks about what it must be like to be at the podium on the receiving end of the questions." So when the White House approached him with an offer for the newly created post of Pentagon press secretary, he jumped at it.

"This was a short conversation, because there wasn't much selling that had to be done," Morrell recalls.

The biggest difference between being a spokesperson and a reporter, Morrell says, is that you have to know so much more as a spokesperson. And, he admits, the truth does look much grayer when you see the process from the inside out.

"What became apparent to me very quickly was how--this is a loaded term so I don't want people to take it the wrong way--but how superficial much of the reporting is," he says. "Often stories are oversimplified, often for the sake of storytelling, often because people just don't know all that's going on."

Morrell is clearly uncomfortable labeling the Pentagon press corps "superficial" and he's quick to add that the reporters who cover the U.S. military are generally among the most experienced and professional around.

Still, to someone immersed deeply in the process, the day-to-day coverage does appear superficial. "That's a loaded word, and I really mean not that it's deliberately shallow, but that people are only able really, because of their depth of knowledge, to scratch the surface of many of these issues, and don't have a full appreciation for necessarily how complex they are and of how much work is being done on the inside to deal with them."

He was also surprised to discover that the Pentagon can't keep a secret. "I was equally shocked by how much very secret--in some cases highly-classified compartmentalized--information leaks out of this building.

"So on one hand this reporting is very superficial, and on the other hand some incredibly sensitive material gets in the hands of reporters."

One explanation is that the United States allows journalists to have offices inside its military headquarters and allows them the freedom to go wherever they want and talk to whomever will talk to them. "To see how the reporters here can work the halls, can work the cafeteria, can work the restrooms, it is an eye-opener," Morrell says.

Although a political appointee, Morrell keeps his party affiliation to himself and insists the transition from Republican to Democratic administration has been seamless. (Of course, he still has the same boss). "This should be an apolitical building, and may be the only one of the government agencies that really should keep politics out."

Morrell, 40, is well aware that if he is seen as a partisan advocate for the government, it could make it difficult to return to journalism. "I think it would very hard to go back," he says.

It has been done, though. NBC correspondent Pete Williams was the Pentagon spokesperson from 1989 to 1993.

And while being a government flack isn't nearly as lucrative as network television, there are compensations. Morrell enjoys a $165,000 annual salary, a spacious office on the outer "E" ring of the Pentagon--and a front-row seat to history.

Jamie McIntyre is a former Pentagon correspondent for CNN who is studying at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

###