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Gate Keeper

[whitespace] Elizabeth Irwin
George Sakkestad

Fiat Umbra: All media contact with the UCSC administration is funneled through Elizabeth Irwin, director of public information and publications.

Information control at a certain local university

By John Yewell

IT WAS A STRANGELY pivotal day for the Public Information Office at UC- Santa Cruz. Two months ago, on Jan. 21, the Santa Cruz County Sentinel ran a story on page 2A that surely brought smiles to a lot of PIO faces.

"Applications to UCSC Soar," read the headline. It was followed by a lead paragraph that asserted that the numbers reflected "unprecedented interest in the university."

"Unprecedented" is a tough standard for a campus that opened to a lot of hype nearly 35 years ago, but certainly the news was good. The story explained that UCSC applications for next fall were up a healthy 11.3 percent over the previous year, compared to a UC system-wide increase of 8.1 percent. Unprecedented or not, in the public relations biz, perception trumps reality. Whatever the story said, the headline alone was worth its weight in gold.

While the ostensible purpose of the Public Information Office is simply to disseminate information about the university, the real goal is to make sure the institution is portrayed in the best possible light. Such stories help create the kind of buzz schools crave in order to encourage an upward success spiral of better students, better postgraduate records, better faculty--and more money.

Meanwhile, down the hill from Glenn Coolidge Drive on the university's eastern edge, a darker public relations scenario was playing itself out. That same day, according to Santa Cruz police, freshman art major Emma Rose Freeman was brandishing a .380-caliber Beretta semiautomatic pistol in Costco. Along with her boyfriend, UCSC senior Anthony Louis Cristofani, and getaway-car driver Craig Dickson, Freeman is alleged to have robbed the store of a boombox, a Walkman and a telephone. The three were arrested four days later and charged with the robbery, as well as with a holdup of a Capitola hair salon five days before the Costco heist.

With the spoiled-brat angle (Freeman reportedly didn't want to have to work to support her art career), the academic twist (Freeman is a national merit scholar) and the erotic tinge of the Bonnie-and-Clyde nature of the crimes, the story went national in a heartbeat.

Remarkably, there was more bad news to come. On Feb. 8, two weeks after the trio's arrest, Porter College junior David Macaluso wrapped himself in an American flag, walked onto a fourth-floor dorm balcony, shot himself and fell onto the quad below.

In the Public Information Office, the reaction was silence.


THE MACALUSO SUICIDE and other recent events have raised important questions about the ability of reporters to provide the public with information about UCSC unsanitized by public relations specialists, and about the obligation of an institution devoted to open inquiry to practice what it preaches.

According to interviews with campus administrators, local journalists, officials at other UC campuses and experts on freedom of information, current UCSC policy is unusually restrictive and a radical departure from past practice. That policy has veered away from the open "facilitator" model, where campus officials aid reporters when asked, to the corporate "gatekeeper" model, where administrative personnel are discouraged from responding directly to press inquiries and all information is now funneled through one source.

The gatekeeper is Elizabeth Irwin, who was hired in August 1995 to head the Public Information Office after serving in the same capacity at Cabrillo College. During her tenure, information policy at UCSC has been transformed, although no one is sure whether the new policy originated with Irwin or Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood.

With every hair in place and a penchant for solid colors in her attire, Irwin seems an odd choice for the job, more suited to corporate P.R. than a lefty, taxpayer-supported university. And it shows in her approach. When discussing campus information policy she talks in circles and avoids straight answers to direct questions.

So it came as no surprise to some when it turned out Irwin had determined that the best reaction to the Macaluso suicide was no reaction at all.

"We were told that from all past practice, this was not something that the media generally covered," Irwin says. "There was the potential for copycat acts, as well as privacy issues involved."

Still, the press did find out. Two days later, Chancellor Greenwood issued a campuswide statement on the death, and the Sentinel got hold of it. The paper ran a short unbylined report Feb. 11.

Lee Quarnstrom, a reporter and columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and an observer of UCSC and county affairs for more than 30 years, says that in the past the university would at least have contacted the local press, even if the papers don't usually do stories about suicides unless it involves a celebrity.

"In the old days, if someone killed himself they would have called," Quarnstrom says. "The fact that we didn't hear anything about it officially for a couple of weeks is reflective of the new policy: don't let word out."

The silence in the wake of the Macaluso death turned out to be a precursor of a more radical shift in campus PIO information policy. On Feb. 20, according to press reports, Matthew Begbie, a freshman at Oakes College, jumped from a roof of the campus's east field house to the swimming pool, landed short, then rolled unconscious into the pool and drowned.

This time the papers found out quickly, but not from the university public information office; the news came in the form of a fax from the county coroner. Media calls were placed to the obvious source, campus police chief Jan Tepper. That's when Irwin's control over campus information policy suddenly became clear.

When Mercury reporter John Woolfolk and Sentinel reporter Dan White called Tepper, they heard something they hadn't heard before: the receptionist said all information on the Begbie death would be handled through Irwin, even though Irwin would herself be getting her information from the police. Woolfolk says he was stunned.

"I had never had an experience where we couldn't talk directly to the police before," Woolfolk says. "I said [to the receptionist], 'You have to be kidding.' It's an investigation. [Irwin] can give quotes, but she's not a cop."

Irwin's account of the incident is somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, she says that Tepper "deputized her" to handle news of the incident, but at the same time she claims that the policy of dealing through the PIO on police matters was in place even before she arrived in 1995. No one in the press remembers it that way.

"We always used to be able to make a direct call," Quarnstrom says. "Since Liz came on she has exerted some kind of hegemony over the whole university."

"It's nonsense," agrees Tom Honig, Sentinel editor. "In the old days, we talked straight to the police. [The change] came as a surprise to us, but I don't know how long this has been policy."

No one seems to know. There is no memo, no notice from Irwin, no policy pronouncement from the chancellor. Calls to M.R.C. Greenwood for comment have gone unreturned, while Irwin is vague.

The Turnip Truck

AS A RESULT OF the treatment of the Begbie case, Honig published an editorial Feb. 23 that barely hid his frustration. "The community deserves to know how its tax-supported university responds to such situations," Honig wrote. "So far, we haven't seen much openness. The UCSC Police Department is under orders not to speak publicly about the case; all information is being piped through one source, the Public Information Office, which has already complained about the extent of press coverage."

Honig also blasted the PIO for its handling of the Macaluso suicide. "[T]he university made no public acknowledgment that it had happened, despite the public manner of the death, and the existence of rumors that the student's death was something other than a suicide." Honig and the Mercury reporters demanded a meeting with the chancellor to discuss the situation.

Suddenly the PIO was scrambling to reconstruct its tarnished image, so positive only a month earlier, while the local press corps was livid over being denied unfiltered access to critical news sources.

The university declined to meet with both papers as a group, and the Mercury reporters declined to meet separately. So on Friday the 26th, Honig, another editor and two reporters met with Greenwood, Irwin and Tepper.

Honig would not discuss details of what was said, but he is guardedly optimistic that the university will be more open in the future.

"Did I get a clear directive? No," Honig says, but adds: "I'm satisfied that we were given assurances that we could talk to who we need to talk to.

Tom Honig He Got Their Attention: Sentinel editor Tom Honig wrote an editorial critical of campus information policy that set the Public Information Office on its ear.

George Sakkestad

"I don't think there's a huge problem. I did think there was," he says in a nod to his editorial reaction. "I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt, but time will tell. I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday."

Still, confusion reigns. Woolfolk says his impression of the result of the meeting was that the press could talk directly to the campus police without going through the PIO. But Honig acknowledges that he got no such commitment.

Irwin's understanding of campus policy is unequivocal. "In all cases press inquiries [to police] will be directed to the PIO."

If the policy only applied to police matters, reporters trying to serve in their traditional watchdog role might just grin and bear it. But in reality, the policy is being applied campuswide. Irwin claims that individual managers have the option to refer press inquiries to her, but a random survey of administrative personnel revealed the policy to be widespread.

"I've simply been told by my supervisors that [referring press inquiries to the PIO] is what I'm supposed to do," says Cliff Anderson, director of development research.

"My superiors have decided that [procedure on media relations]. That's my instructions," says Julie Tanner, assistant director of transportation and parking services.

Corrinne Miller, director of services for transfer and re-entry students, calls the requirement to refer press inquiries to the PIO an "unwritten protocol."

Calls to other departments resulted in similar responses.

Common Courtesy

REPORTERS AND PUBLIC information officers live with a sometimes uneasy truce. When a reporter doesn't know where to go for information, a PIO can be indispensable for helping a reporter do his or her job. It is when a PIO stops being a facilitator and starts being a gatekeeper, as Irwin has become, that the truce falters and hostilities break out.

The conflict gets worse if the policy is applied capriciously. In the recent past, some reporters for the on-campus publication City on a Hill Press have had no trouble getting through directly to administrative personnel, even to police, and co-editor Rafi Frankel says that as far as he knows that situation has not changed.

One reason may be a perception that the paper is more cooperative--including allowing sources to review a story in some cases before it goes to press.

"You know, it's common courtesy of the City on the Hill Press to submit a copy of their articles to their sources," Sharon Cohen Barry, manager of training and development in the campus human resources department, told Metro Santa Cruz.

CHP reporter Cynthia Manor confirms she routinely allows sources to review stories before publication and gives them an opportunity to make changes. Perhaps not coincidentally, she has also enjoyed direct access to Chief Tepper over the last year.

"My ability to gain access to Tepper [without going through the PIO] is because they know me," Manor says.

City on a Hill co-editor Rafi Frankel denies he ever approved Manor showing her stories to sources in advance and says it is not the paper's policy to do so. Revealing stories to sources prior to publication is frowned upon by working journalists for a number of reasons; among them the need to maintain objectivity.

And not all campus papers are created, or treated, equal. Another student editor of a UCSC newspaper who asked not to be named thinks the stonewalling is a result of favoritism.

"If [a story] fits within the neat little category they've defined for you, they're helpful," he says. "If you have a stranger request, something the propaganda machine isn't comfortable turning out, you get bumped around a lot, which can be very frustrating."

The Runaround

QUESTIONS OF ACCESS and who has it ultimately affect the kind of information the public gets. Restricting the ability of the press to get unfiltered information gives Irwin enormous power over what the public learns about how its tax dollars are spent. Policies that deflect press inquiry tend to create a hostile climate. John Woolfolk of the Mercury and others say they have seen signs of it on campus recently.

"There seems to be a pall of fear on campus," Woolfolk says. He notes that when he tried to conduct interviews in the athletic department after the Begbie death, people directed him to Liz Irwin and scurried away.

"I don't remember it being that way," he continues. "You get the impression that if people talk to you, Liz Irwin will tie them to a pole and shoot them. It's an unnatural fear."

Woolfolk studied at UC-Santa Barbara and attended journalism school at Berkeley. He says he hasn't seen this kind of information control anywhere else.

"At Santa Barbara and Berkeley you could talk to anyone," Woolfolk says. "It's astounding. We don't even get this kind of runaround at Stanford."

UC Regents vice chair Frank W. Clark Jr., a Los Angeles attorney who has been on the Board of Regents since 1980, told Metro Santa Cruz he was unaware of a UC systemwide policy on media relations. A review of UC campus information offices reveals that the UCSC system appears to be more restrictive than others.

UC-Berkeley director of media relations Jesus Mena says his department is "not a regime in which we muscle some people. Employees are free [to talk], since we are a public institution."

Pat Jacoby, director of institutional outreach at UC-San Diego, called her campus's policy toward the press "pretty open," and noted that staff "sometimes refer the press to us if they don't feel comfortable with a question."

Joan Magruder, director of news and communication in the UC-Santa Barbara office of public affairs, says, "There isn't any policy for reporters not being able to talk to staff."

Sherry Angel, director of public information at UC-Irvine, says her campus has adopted the facilitator model, not the gatekeeper: "I recommend [press] talk to us to help find the best source, but there's nothing to prevent you from talking directly [to staff]."

The Whole Truth

MOST EXPERTS on freedom of information have a predictable reaction to the gatekeeper model adopted by UCSC. But Terry Francke, who heads the California First Amendment Coalition in Sacramento, is a realist when it comes to a public information officer's responsibilities, even as he argues for maximum openness.

"A PIO's job is, depending on how you look at it, either to get information out or keep it in. It's to optimize the public's view of an institution," Francke says. "That means putting out things that look good with energy and retarding, to the extent legally possible, the bad news."

Because UCSC is a public university and not a corporation, Francke acknowledges that the very creation of a public information officer using taxpayer funds raises questions about openness. But in the context of recent decisions by new Gov. Gray Davis to restrict press access to administration personnel, it is not that unusual.

"Like it or not, the people and the press have allowed this kind of information screening to be an accepted norm," Francke says. But he also warns against negative side effects. "It doesn't serve anyone's interests. It encourages leaks, where people want to get the information out and distortions result. In the long run it doesn't help very much."

Francke says he used to be a public information officer for a school district, and it was his policy that reporters were free to call anyone.

"It showed that the institution was not paranoid or trying to overcontrol," Francke says.

Not surprisingly, reporters like Francke's approach. Gatekeepers tend to raise suspicions, whether they have anything to hide or not, because there is no way to assure that the information being disseminated is in fact the whole truth and nothing but. Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Virginia, says she is bothered by the impression that there has to be clearance before administrative personnel can speak to the press.

"It's really stupid for a university or government organization to set up a system where they essentially have to approve media contacts," Kirtley says. "Obviously the fact that other schools don't have the same policy brings around the question of why they [UCSC] do."

Steven Levine is the author of a popular guidebook on public information policy in California called Paper Trails. He is not a man who minces words.

"For the university to not to talk to the press or to put up barriers for whatever reason is essentially the position of mindless, shortsighted bureaucrats doing nothing except protecting their own petty fiefdom," Levine says.

Ultimately, people want to have faith in the integrity of the information they receive. The press has its own crosses to bear, such as a pack mentality in its worst behavior, as demonstrated by stories like the Lewinsky affair.

But as imperfect as it is, there is no substitute for an independent source from whom to gather information and trying to give it to the reader straight. That is why good reporters insist on direct access to sources. The reliability of information filtered through someone whose job it is to make the institution look good is, by definition, suspect.

"I absolutely agree that openness is a necessity," Tom Honig says. "If the Sentinel gets access, that is not enough. Open flowing information from any government agency is important.

"Is there a filter?" Honig asks of the PIO regime at UCSC. "I'm concerned there might be. They have assured me there's not. For now, I believe them."

Intern Kiersten McCutchan contributed to this story.

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From the March 17-24, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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