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Cable Queen vs. the Press Corps?


August 1, 2009

It was April Fool’s Day, but there were no practical jokes.

As Chrysler and GM were teetering on the edge of liquidation, Gov. Jennifer Granholm introduced the president’s newly appointed recovery czar at a particularly dour press conference in Lansing.

I started to ask a question about the Senate voting that day to slash $15 million from the governor’s beloved No Worker Left Behind program, when her blue eyes bulged and she cut me off. Granholm briskly admonished me to only ask questions about what Gospodin Czar would be doing for Michigan.

Now I understand the gov’s trepidation, in part. I am the snarky columnist who has satirized her as Gov. Photo Op, a homecoming queen gripped by Sally Field syndrome and Dorothy, the heavily rouged Democrat who thinks there’s no place like home like the McNamara Machine in Wayne County. She can’t count on me to query, “Governor, how important is alternative energy for Michigan?” like some inexperienced local teevee eye candy.

But my question was relevant. I think job retraining is a pretty important component of any auto recovery plan for this state. So I gently explained that and the governor got to unload her outrage at Republicans’ “backwards strategy.” And everyone was happy, right?

Wrong.

This is how Jennifer Granholm does business with the press and it stinks. Everything is carefully choreographed and scripted, which we’ve come to expect from all politicians. But her heavy-handed attempts to control the line of questioning at press conferences is just too much. This is not the first time this has happened — far from it. At the beginning of a roundtable last month, the governor announced it would be narrowly confined to the prescribed topic of alternative energy (what else?). Maybe there would be time for other questions at the end if we were good little boys and girls.

“This is not a press conference so to speak,” she intoned. “It’s mostly to tee-up the announcement we’re making today.”

Everybody follow the script. Now dance, puppets, dance. (Boy, where are the liberal blogs when you need them? Oh, right. Attending news conferences is still too much like work.)

Well, actually, governor, just because you want to talk about the green jobs of the future for the 2 trillionth time does not mean that anybody else does. I’m guessing the public might want to know what you’re going to do about jobs now, being as 1 in 7 Michiganders doesn’t have one.

My affable editor at MIRS, Kyle Melinn (whom the governor’s staff understandably likes far better than me), decided to ask when Granholm would be holding an open press conference, something she hasn’t done since her year-ender interview with Capitol scribes. A spokeswoman declined to answer, but generously offered to forward on “the suggestion.”

Gee, thanks. I’m sure she’ll get right on it as soon as she gets off network and cable teevee. Yes, Granholm has no problem making time for her good buddies Soledad O’Brien, Andrea Mitchell and Chris Matthews, who no doubt recognize that our former Hollywood-wannabe gov is good on camera.

In the time since we lowly Lansing press corps dwellers were deigned important enough to ask unscripted questions on December 23, Granholm has done no less than 67 national teevee interviews. Even Swedish National Television got a crack at her, for God’s sake. So did ESPN. MSNBC, not surprisingly, got the most segments with 18, followed by CNN with 10, CNBC with nine, Bloomberg with seven, Fox with five, ABC and Fox Business with four, PBS with three and CBS with two.

Granholm, who reserves one-on-one interviews in Michigan for the Associated Press and fawning/clueless editorial boards, has no problem granting the national press that honor. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Politico, The Washington Post and Black Enterprise all enjoyed access. (Somehow, I’ve never been able to persuade her, even though my work runs on the state’s biggest website, mlive.com, The Detroit News, the Huffington Post and RealClearPolitics, just to name a few besides Dome).

The governor’s faithful press secretary, Liz Boyd, says there have been 65 events in Michigan open to the media during that time. She insists that Granholm is “very accessible,” although she will only do one open news conference a year.

Want to take a guess as to why she’s adopted this media strategy? (Hint, it’s a two-parter). Thanks to term limits, Ms. Granholm will be out of a job in a little more than a year, so all options have to be on the table. Even if it (sob) means leaving her beloved Michigan for a nice slot on the federal bench or something deep within the bowels of the Obama administration. She might be vaguely aware that raising her national profile might help. And it’s not like there’s a $2.8-billion budget deficit to solve within a couple of months or something.

The second reason is sadder for Michiganders. Anyone who watched the national media’s cliché-soaked coverage of the Big Three’s meltdown knows that they got many parts of the story wrong, like repeating the myth ad nauseum that union workers make $70 per hour. They blew the botched 2008 Michigan primary in the same way. It’s not that they’re bad reporters, although many of them are inexcusably lazy. They’re clueless about Michigan’s history, people and issues — and it shows.

All the better for our governor to toss platitudes at, my dear.

Beats dealing with a dialed-in Capitol press corps, doesn’t it, governor? But then don’t be shocked when we don’t buy your job creation numbers, since you’ve made it clear how little you value open government. You have the power, but trust cuts both ways.

The worst part is that Michiganders get to know far less about the way our state functions than we deserve. And it sets a terrible precedent so that the next governor can treat us with as much contempt or more. Coupled with the fact that the number of journalists in Lansing keeps dwindling, the odds of the public missing a big scandal or abuse of power are soaring.

We’re sure a long way from the days of Bill Milliken — Granholm’s role model — who would routinely hold extemporaneous sessions with a cynical press corps. When he decided not to seek a fifth term, even the hard-boiled host of “Off the Record,” Tim Skubick, broke down and cried.

Anyone expect any tears to be shed when Gov. Photo Op says goodnight?

Susan J. Demas is a 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.

July 30, 2009 · Filed under Press Box

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Keith // Jul 31, 2009 at 5:19 am

    Whoa. Those are tough words, but deservedly so. It’s not easy in this day and age to speak the truth for fear of reprisal.

    At one point, this governor was a media darling and always available to the media. Seems that her inability to lead in tough times makes answering in-depth questions a little less enjoyable.

    The media is partially to blame for creating this monster– they were awestruck by her star power in her gubernatorial campaigns and covered her accordingly. At the same time, they overlooked what insiders already knew– she’s all fluff, no substance.

  • 2 Bill B // Jul 31, 2009 at 8:29 am

    There goes the Christmas card Susan. I am impressed at you for saying it like it is. You either have guts or are moving.

    We need to hold the politicians responsible and accessible. With the capitol press corps shrinking each day, how hard can it be to be nice to and responsibly answer questions from a reporter in an industry that is having its own financial problems.

    I am proud of you for this story Susan.

  • 3 Walt Sorg // Jul 31, 2009 at 11:32 am

    I have interviewed the Governor nine times this year on WILS-1320 in Lansing. There have never been restrictions on the issues discussed. We generally have 10-15 minutes.

    She also regularly talks with other radio shows 1-on-1 .

    Does that make us “local TV eye candy”? One look at my photo disproves that notion.

  • 4 Tom S // Jul 31, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Wow! Hard to remember any politician wasting more political good will she had coming into office.

    She became a lame duck after two years in office and two straight years of economic downturns.

    She has blamed everyone else for our problems except for her highness. No leadership, no new ideas, nothing more than the green issue d’jour.

    And when she leaves – she will leave no high heel prints behind.

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