‘Our worst enemies seem to be the press’

“The people who cover the president know him the least. People ask me all the time, ‘What’s he like?’ As if I knew.” A Nigerian reading this would think President Muhammadu Buhari is the object of that statement. No. It was actually made by a frustrated Peter Baker, a White House correspondent for The New York Times during the Obama era. After reading our own presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina’s Eureka account of his phone conversation with his boss on Saturday, I was tempted to ask: How much of the president does his media aide know? Why really does a president need a press secretary? You would ask these questions when you read a press secretary tell his boss, after 37 days of total blackout, “I have missed you” and the boss laughs and goes on to say some other things ending with “I hope to call you again.”

Adesina is a good man, a very good man. My first direct official contact with him was his immediate post-Concord era (some 16 years ago) when he joined the editorial board of the Nigerian Tribune. I was the news editor then. I saw a complete gentleman who would occasionally give me photographs to use but won’t insist on the usage. In private and official engagements as an editor, media manager and president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Adesina left an image of a thoroughbred professional and consummate patriot. So, why would such a lamb find himself in the wolf land of politics and politicking? The Washington Post of 30, May, 2014 described being a presidential spokesman as “the ultimate burnout job.” The last two weeks have not been particularly edifying for the position and person of Adesina. It emerged from his interactions with the press that while he was “holding out” for his boss “against mischief makers,” he had really had zero direct contact with the big man. That knowledge cast a pall on the skies of his constituency. Then came last Saturday. Adesina climbed to the rooftop of Facebook to announce that his boss finally called him: “It was a defining moment for me,” he shouted while adding that “For more than a month, I had always spoken with aides who are with the president in London.” Wow!

So, what really is the problem? Uche Ezechukwu is a first rate, elderly journalist. Mid last week, he wrote on Facebook: “I was Buhari’s spokesman, as the director of media and publicity of the Buhari-Okadigbo Campaign Organisation in 2003, the first time he ran for the presidency. I appreciate firsthand, Femi Adesina’s plight.” What did he mean by appreciating someone’s plight? Someone who had not complained and would not complain of any pain working with Buhari. What did Ezechukwu experience managing the media for Buhari? One day, I will ask Yinka Odumakin who also managed the media for Buhari in the 2011 election if he agrees with Ezechukwu. I do not envy Buhari’s spokespersons. I have been there before at the state level. The job really is about plights and pains. It is not a job for the meek. It is a permanent, constant contention with spins, contra-spins and anti-spins. It is a pain no one wants to suffer twice. Ari Fleischer, US President George W. Bush’s first press secretary, captured the pains of the job very accurately: “The grueling part isn’t just the hours, which are bad, it’s that your mind never gets a rest. You’re always war gaming. It’s constant intellectual chess. You’re thinking of the next question that the press is going to ask, and that leads to the next question and the next question et cetera, et cetera.” Indeed, in US history, two press secretaries died on the job – both of heart attack, one right on his desk.

Speaking for a president or a governor can be very enabling. It empowers and makes the unknown renowned. You do not leave the job and need any introduction anywhere again. You are either popular or notorious or a miserable mix of both. A White House press secretary said it was the best job he ever had, “and the best job that the people who are there now will ever have. If you like politics and policy and the news media and how they interact, you’ll have the most impact you’ll ever have in your career. You get this incredible view of history being made. And when the leader of the free world turns to you in a meeting and asks you, ‘What do you think?’ that’s pretty exciting.” Around here in Nigeria, you share the limelight with the big boss to the envy of powerful people around him. That is why a press secretary is as blessed (and endangered) as the boss. You announce appointments and sign sack statements. Your name is a household item and on the lips of every kid who watches television and listens to radio. But the glitz ends right there. If you are the unwary, unlucky type, you soon get knifed by power and powerful interests. When Ronald Reagan was shot, his press secretary got hit with him. He barely lived to tell the story. When that happens, you walk down the dusty road lonely, alone.

President Buhari thanked Adesina for “holding out against mischief makers.” How many times has he seen that man being rubbished by the style of a government that does not believe in saying anything? Mischief is any annoying activity that causes no harm. Could the media be part of the mischievous people the president spoke about? I will be surprised if they are not. But that is Adesina’s real constituency. And he and his brother, Garba Shehu have done well so far in their relationship with the media. The two make calls and pick calls. Was that the case before they came about two years ago? They rarely show their frustrations with their colleagues’ operations. But they are government people hired to “manage” the media. So how do they do that when they are blinded for months?  Does the perception in there suggest that these two gentlemen are just like the journalist out there who cannot be wholly trusted with information? No government anywhere likes the press. But the job of the press, really, is to make governments uncomfortable. It is when the press and the government fail to share the same bed that the people can safely say goodnight and sleep. Otherwise, the morning could see the people asking where their freedom is. President Richard Nixon was one of the most unfortunate with the media among US presidents. He routinely blamed the woes of his government on a media which he accused of “distorted, even disloyal reporting.” From asking his media handlers to “build a mythology” around his person, a mismanaged, defeated Nixon had to say in exasperation: “Our worst enemies seem to be the press.” He was too conceited to know that he was his own worst enemy. The media merely assisted him. The man ended up a classroom example of a president firmly held accountable by a determined media. Maybe in four years time, Nixon may yield or share his place with Donald Trump. That shall not be the portion of our own Buhari. I pray.

A spokesperson’s problem does not start and end with the questions his colleagues ask him. In Nigeria, that is just a little jab in the head. His major headache could really be the boss and the company he keeps. If the boss is good, he could be unfortunate to have hawks as friends. The mouthpiece is a dignified night soil man who clears the mess before the day breaks. When you do such for the system, fairness demands appreciation. But does it come at all? It depends on who the boss talks with. Manipulative friends around the boss kill the spokesperson’s spirit. These are men and women who know the media job more than anyone else. These ones pick holes regularly in the media engagements of their friend. They feed him regularly with what his press secretary did not do and what he over-did. It takes the lion hearted to keep going when these know-all behemoths bring their dirt. Now, how much of this has been Adesina’s lot? Joe Lockhart, another White House spokesman, once said that he knew he was doing his job well when everyone was mad at him. “You walk into the briefing room and the reporters yell at you because you haven’t given them enough. And you walk into the next room and (government officials) are screaming at you for telling the press too much. That’s when you know you’ve hit the sweet spot.” Not everyone feels so. Many would wonder why take this thankless job in the first place.

President Buhari will be back and well. When he is well and through with resting, he will be home. When he does that this week (my instincts), I pray he changes his ways with the media and information management. He needs to talk to Nigerians and listen to the media. Keeping everyone, including aides, guessing on important matters is not any leader’s plus. The feeling of pain has always been the tragedy of great men. Every person of his rank will always receive media bashing. Greater people in history experienced it. It made them better and immortal. Abraham Lincoln gave democracy its modern definition. He never had it easy with the media and media manipulators, the “dominant coalition.” But he didn’t shut himself in. On one occasion, he said after reading a series of attacks in some newspapers he asked himself: “Abraham Lincoln, are you a man or a dog?” It was that bad, but his noble spirit took over and elevated him to immortality.