By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The government is closed: What are you doing?

I am in Taiwan, where it is 55 degrees and people feel it is freezing. But of course I've been following the news about the east coast snowstorm, including Washington's record snows. Mary Davie of the General Services Administration posted a Facebook status update on Sunday stating, "Federal Govt in DC area will be closed tomorrow so it will be a nice day to catch up on stuff. Like work."

Her post reminded me of a time a few years ago -- maybe the last time -- the government was closed because of snow. At the time, somebody forwarded me an e-mail GSA headquarters sent to staff that so many GSA employees had been accessing the GSA Intranet from home to work that the system had crashed. People should only use the Intranet for work if they absolutely had to, the message continued.

In our culture, the fact that many federal workers might choose to work from home on a snow day is not considered to be news. The reason for this surely can't be the common excuse journalists offer for their judgment in proclaiming this a non-news event, namely that only surprising or unusual happenings are news, not ordinary life. Most readers (certainly outside DC) would find the idea of "bureaucrats" toiling from home to be both surprising and unusual, a genuine "man bites dog" story. It would seem instead that this is not news because it violates a different rule of journalism – that stories that play to people's prejudices are newsworthy. The idea of hardworking "bureaucrats" goes too much against the cultural grain, and journalists' preferences for the cynical and the put-down, to become worthy of coverage.

Well, I'd like to invite blog readers who are civil servants to write comments talking about how they spent their snow day. (On second thought, politicals can write in as well -- my wife, who is working in the Obama administration, mentioned in passing in an e-mail to me yesterday afternoon, "Fed government closed tomorrow although I will go in.") I am sure some are shoveling out or enjoying a day off. But I'm also sure others are working. Let's put together a balanced picture of a kind we can't expect from the media.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Dec 21, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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