Once upon a time, politicians and their handlers jumped at the chance for an opportunity to appear in a TV story. Nowadays, there’s frequently an undercurrent of suspicion and hostility that seems disproportionate to the potential risk. This year, I found this to be especially the case with two members of Congress: Rep. John Barrow and Rep. Sanford Bishop. Barrow’s handler eventually and grudgingly gave me an opportunity to talk with her guy. Bishop’s never did. I visited Bishop’s southwest Georgia district anyway. What follows is an email I wrote but decided to not send to Bishop’s guy shortly before departing for Albany.
Hi Tim –
As you know, I contacted you several weeks ago requesting an interview with Congressman Bishop. During that time you’ve either a) said I’d have to “wait” until “later,” or b) ignored the requests altogether.
Last week, I sent two more emails and left at least two voice mails. You ignored them. I sent another follow-up, wherein I told you that I intended to visit the district to produce a story on the campaign, regardless of your willingness to cooperate. I suggested it may be in Bishop’s interest to cooperate, given that his absence in such a story would raise legitimate questions about his accessibility.
A couple of days later, I got a bellicose phone call from a man identifying himself as the campaign manager. He said that because of the “threat” implied in my email, he would decline the request.
Allow me to appeal to reason, if that’s possible.
First: It’s clear your campaign was stonewalling me. Yet the race is legitimately newsworthy. Bishop is an endangered Democratic incumbent in an election year where Republicans are expecting to ascend to power. Although the second district isn’t in metro Atlanta, it’s a story that’s of interest to our viewers.
Second: I didn’t threaten anybody. Actually, as a professional courtesy, I gave you a heads-up that plainly conveyed our intention. I know a lot of folks in the political publicity business. Most of them strive to avoid being conveyed as too slippery to answer questions (unless their lawyer advises them to do so). I felt you deserved to know that our coverage of the race was inevitable, regardless of your participation in it.
You may call it a “threat” if you like. I realize that political campaigns are in the business of taking plain language and twisting it to mean something sinister. Though it seems ill-advised to do that with somebody who’s offering a bit of free media exposure, you can do whatever you want. Heaven knows, Cynthia McKinney won plenty of elections without ever talking with guys like me.
Third: As folks tied to the world in Washington DC, you should be accustomed to a fact of life in the news biz: The story frequently gets covered, regardless of how much one of the players may want to stonewall or cry about it.
So here’s another heads up: I’m visiting your district tomorrow. I’m going to talk to Bishop’s opponent, Mike Keown. I’m going to do a story on him, the race, and Bishop’s unwillingness to respond to weeks of interview requests. If you’d like to alter your stance and make Bishop available tomorrow, I’d like to talk with him. If not, I’ll produce the story without your input.
As I told your campaign manager person, I’m not interested in posturing or jousting with Bishop’s handlers. I want to talk with Bishop. You’ve had nearly a month to make it happen. If you’d like to show me a fraction of the professional courtesy I’ve shown you, please contact me tomorrow morning.
The following morning while en route, a reporter in Albany told me I might find Bishop at an event in Moultrie. Photog Steve Flood and I hunted him down and produced this story. I told Bishop that I’d tried for weeks to schedule an interview. He told me media “out of the district isn’t a priority.” I get that. Yet it would have cost them zero resources to tell me to meet Bishop at the event in Moutrie, where I took all of ten minutes of Bishop’s time.
If you’re a political handler, please post a comment explaining why this makes sense.