Playing the Press

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Scott McClellan stepped down from his job as press secretary to the Bush White House last week. The position as defined by McClellan seemed more like one of those blow-up, punching clowns we kids of the 1960s used to batter.

Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor and author of the excellent PressThink blog, saw the McClellan years as a watershed for the press relationship with an administration.

You should read it. But in short… he said the years of spinning the media are over. Instead, we now see the Bush administration engaged in a kind of press nullification. McClellan, famous for saying nothing and repeating talking points over and over, devalued the press by not dealing with it. There is some truth to this. And it’s not one that civic-minded folks should be happy to see.

This got me to thinking about other administrations – and how they deal with the press. There have been some differences.

Currently in the Rochester area we have two people heading up administrations who have an ease with the press. County Executive Maggie Brooks was, in fact, a television reporter in a former life. Her polish and poise in front of inquisitors has so far served her well. A test of her press savvy is on deck, however. She has proposed a sales tax increase and a potentially thorny trade-off of sales tax money for Medicaid expenses. We’ll see how she does (in fact, I’ll get a chance at lobbing a few questions her way on Friday when she visits the WXXI studios for Need to Know).

The new mayor, Bob Duffy, also has an ease with the press. The former police chief has dealt with camera and microphones and pads shoved underneath his rather large frame. He gives you a kind of “aw-shucks” demeanor and speaks in a rather soothing tone. He hasn’t had any real tests during his first few months. We’ll see how he wears when a crisis comes his way.

The communications folks for both Brooks and Duffy are basically letting their bosses do the message-giving. They aren’t shielding him. And, as far as I can tell, the spinning is subtle. It’s there but not divorced from the chief administrator. It comes straight from the person holding the office.

That wasn’t always the case with a former chief administrator around these parts – County Executive Jack Doyle. This was a man who didn’t appear to like being questioned. It wasn’t the content of the question that bothered him – instead it was the idea of a question being posed at all. His top communications guy for most of those years, a former Democrat and Chronicle reporter named John Riley, played a much stronger role in directly spinning reporters. This was an administration that didn’t enjoy a palsy-walsy relationship with reporters. And for the most part, they liked it that way.

Former Mayor Bill Johnson seemed to act as his own press person. He took questions head on. And when he didn’t like how he was being covered, he’d let you know. My guess is that people who work in government communications would have cringed at how Johnson would engage the press.

Then there is the current occupant of the governor’s mansion – George Pataki. Most of what I know about him comes from others who dealt with that administration on a direct basis. But all reporters in the state have engaged Pataki and his press people, especially during election years.

Pataki’s predecessor, Mario Cuomo, seemed much like Bill Johnson. He would engage the press. He would also demean the reporter if he thought the question was based on a shaky premise. An intimidator, but at least accessible.

I dare anyone to call Pataki accessible. The first person a reporter thinks of when it comes to Pataki is Zenia Mucha, a tough-as-nails advisor who kept guard on Pataki. It became the hallmark of the Pataki administration ( here’s a great piece that describes the difference by the Albany Times Union’s Jim Odato. As Odato put it, press conferences were rare, news came via press releases. On the campaign trail it was no different. Local reporters would put questions to Pataki and either you’d get a non-response or no response. I can remember during the 1998 campaign a number of us in Rochester got to Pataki after an election event at Strong Memorial Hospital. We wanted to ask about a topic he didn’t want to deal with (I couldn’t tell you what it was now if I tried). Pataki simply shut down and walked briskly to his car… even as reporters continued buzzing around him trying in vein to get an answer

I remember that day for the way it felt – like we were an annoyance. And how it may have appeared to onlookers – like we were a pack of dogs. This sounds a lot like what you might have seen on a daily basis in the White House Press Room with McClellan behind the podium.

Rosen may be right – that McClellan ushered in a new era of press relations in Washington. But I think an earlier practitioner of this press nullification could be found in Albany.

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