Publisher's Gallery: The public should care about a hissing match between the governor and the media

Mar 1, 2003

Mike Morsch
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

The Statehouse press corps is a little cranky these days, and the problem can’t be traced to the coffee.

Seems what’s got everyone’s knickers in a bunch is the lack of a clue exhibited by the new administration’s communi-cations staff. Specifically, administration representatives aren’t returning phone calls to the media in a timely fashion. Actually, they’re barely returning phone calls at all.

And it’s not just the Springfield-based media. Chicago reporters also are experiencing difficulty in getting one-on-one time with Gov. Blagojevich and those who speak for him.

It didn’t help that the governor blamed the problem on the media itself. During a Springfield press conference, Blagojevich said, “With regard to those phone calls, I want to get to the bottom of that. In defense of our communications team, some of you guys have to work a little past 6 o’clock, because they claim they call you after six.”

That’s like taking a stick and poking a sleeping bear, poking him right in the eye. Several times.

That got the attention of many reporters, including Doug Finke of the Springfield State Journal-Register. In his regular Sunday column called “Statehouse Insider,” Finke explained what he called, “the facts of life” to the governor. “The news media operates under deadlines. Those deadlines don’t get extended because your press staff finds it incon-venient to return calls on a timely basis. And do you seriously think one of your flacks expected to reach a reporter when he returned one phone call after midnight a couple of weeks ago?”

The rumblings aren’t limited to the print media. Michael Wilson, state capital bureau chief and talk show host for WMAY Radio in Springfield, said he was promised an interview with the new governor, but never received a call back from administration officials. So, while on the air, he called Billy Weinberg, an administration spokesman, and left a message about not getting a callback.

“We know what the situation is, that they’re having a communications problem,” Wilson said of the administration. “But the general consensus among the press corps is that it’s just ineptitude [on the part of the administration]. 

We have so many questions that are going unanswered. We’re not getting the complete and balanced story out to the listeners in central Illinois.”

The public might not be concerned about a hissing match between the media and the administration. But it should, because larger issues could arise from this communications problem. First, the media is the governor’s conduit to the public. Does anyone think for one moment that a member of the general public could get information directly by calling the administration? On a daily basis? If the early pattern were any indication, that person wouldn’t get a callback. Secondly, as pointed out by Wilson, the public isn’t getting both sides of the story when the administration doesn’t engage in the discussion.

Another perspective, as offered in the January edition ofIllinois Issues in a column by editor Peggy Boyer Long, is that it’s important to cultivate a relationship with the messengers whose job it is to inform Illinois citizens about their government. She cited former Gov. Dan Walker’s inability to do this as contributing to his one-term fate.

Not to be overlooked is this: Are the governor’s difficulties with the media an indication of greater strains within the administration? Blagojevich is certainly leaving room for that debate. Statehouse media types say the communications snafus aren’t a new problem. Some reporters have experienced this type of treatment from the Blagojevich camp for nearly a year now.

Cheryle Jackson, Blagojevich’s communications director, is quoted as saying the situation will improve. And longtime state government agency spokesman Tom Schafer has been hired as acting press secretary in the governor’s Springfield office. Let’s hope he comes bearing gifts — namely a lot of answers and a big pot of decaf for the media crew.

Mike Morsch can be reached at 217-206-6521 or by e-mail at morsch.michael@uis.edu

 

Illinois Issues, March 2003