No author has devoted a book to Capitol Hill’s press secretaries. In fact, they’ve received fewer than fifty pages worth of study in all of academia. Drawing upon ten years of experience working for communications programs throughout Washington, Professor Ed Downes hopes to fill the void. Downes took last semester off to research and write what will be a groundbreaking work studying the complex relationship between Congressional press secretaries and the media.
Although the book will tackle a wide range of topics, one crucial question Downes explores is how forms of new media—the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and so on—have changed the process by which press secretaries transmit messages to the public, and how such messages are absorbed. How have things changed?
“The major change is that, now, press secretaries can bypass reporters,” he said. “They always prefer to go directly to their audience, and now they can.”
This, he said, is of particular importance to the press secretaries of conservative members of Congress, who believe the media harbors a liberal bias. “This has empowered them because they felt they were never getting a fair shake,” he said. And this shift has far reaching implications, not just for political careers but for democracy itself. In this new media landscape, he said, more responsibility is falling on the public to analyze the contents—and accuracy—of political messages. “The question is whether this is good for democracy,” he said. “Today, press secretaries can bypass the media gatekeeper. This empowers them if the media is in fact biased, but is this better? I don’t know the answer.”
Downes said he the book is about 80 percent complete, and that a recent grant has provided him the resources necessary to finish the project. What’s left on the agenda? One last stop on Capitol Hill to gather the most up to date statistics and to “verify” his assertions.
But his semester off was more than time to research and write this book. In addition to his travels and writing, he accepted an invitation to give the keynote address at the “Empowering Women Through Higher Education” conference in Jalandhar, India. He also traveled widely with stops in New York, New Mexico, and Laos.
But with his sabbatical over, Professor Downes has returned to the practiced routine of teaching. So how is he adjusting? “You know, the first day back was surreal, but it feels good to be back,” he said.