When reason fails

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.

Outside Albany GA, calling Bishop's Congressional office

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.

Eureka! With Bishop at the Sunbelt Ag Expo

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.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

7 thoughts on “When reason fails

  1. A Political Hack

    What could Bishop possibly have to gain from such an interview? It’s clear that your story wasn’t going to be helpful and wasn’t a run of the mill story on the race. 11Alive has almost no viewership in the district. This isn’t to say the story wasn’t fair, it is.

    When a bunch of questions come up that look to be a scandal the deal is pretty simple, don’t talk to anyone you don’t have to. Your story could only hurt him by making news, it’s not as though he could explain it all away to you. Just look at the 11Alive Nathan Deal interview from earlier this year. it was a 5 minute package of Deal looking guilty. Shortly there after Deal got new press handlers for a reason.

    He’s been in D.C. 18 years without any help from 11Alive. He doesn’t think he needs you. Plus add to that fact that you guys have turned your political coverage in to stories that have to do as much as with you and Hulinger as with whatever you’re covering and any good media consultant would advise against.

    Reply
  2. Dellrab

    The best political reporting in 2010 nationally and locally is defined by personality, wit and perspective. The days of bland instiutionalized microphone and notepad holders are gone. Politicians can run and hide but they better be ready to answer and to mix it up.
    There are many ways to get information these days… so you better offer something more than, “officials say……”

    Reply
  3. Rick

    This is the age of the internets. I’m sure if Bishop thought about it, he’d realize that “out of district” news media stories are as accessible to voters as the “in district” news media stories are. The potential is there for this news story to have been viewed by voters in Bishop’s district, and for it to be linked on websites and on blogs that are in Bishop’s district.

    Politicians have always been trying to hand-pick reporters and news outlets, hoping for fair and/or favorable reporting as defined by the politicians. And politicians have always been trying to keep other reporters away.

    For me, being able to see stories from both the “approved” and “non-approved” reporters is helpful. Not that I’d really know the difference which is which, sometimes you can just tell by the way a story is done. The way a politician deals with both says more about the politician than the reporters.

    Bishop seemed like a stand-up guy in the brief interview, once Doug tracked him down. Bishop isn’t just a congressman from SW GA, because what he does to help/hurt one of the state’s biggest industries, agriculture, which sure is big in his district, affects the whole state. I’m thinking a quicker yes to Doug’s initial request would have been better for Bishop and for the viewers and voters.

    Reply
  4. AdamM

    Am I missing something or was this story really about Doug Richards trying to get an interview? Entertaining? Yes. But since you DID get the interview I kinda thought the first two minutes were moot. Of course it was all well told and I especially liked the posed stand up with the “rural” tractor crossing the field.

    Reply
  5. Rick

    I thought part of the story was about Bishop “hiding” from a pesky reporter from one of those damn lyin’ Atlanta news media outlets. Which is what Bishop was doing (I describe Doug here as I imagine Bishop’s people do). Which, again, is as informative about Bishop as anything he had to say once Doug found him.

    Reply
  6. Jolly Roger

    Bishop is not a private citizen, and thus not afforded the privacy a citizen would expect.
    He is (WAS) as servant of the people, and thus expected to answer to the people, the media being an arm of said people.
    Beware any politician unwilling to talk to the media, or the people he serves!

    Reply

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