Wednesday, December 31, 2008

There's Always More To The Story

***A Behind-The Scenes-Look At 3 Memorable Political Stories in 2008***

There's always more to the stories political reporters write and broadcast. Often times, the backstory is even more rich and entertaining. Here's a look at what leads up to what you end up seeing on the air, or reading in print.

1. "IS HE DROPPING OUT?" It was the G.O.P's Springfield edition of Lincoln Days and all the pols were still abuzz from the fallout of Matt Blunt's decision not to run for re-election. The shuffling had begun. We had set up an interview on that Friday afternoon at University Plaza with presumed candidate Peter Kinder. The interview was set for a bit before 4 p.m. As we got rolling, the first nonchalant thing out of my mouth, as I found my page in my notebook was, "So you're obviously a candidate for Governor." Kinder didn't really respond. That ended up to be telling. It also ended up teaching me a lesson. As the interview continued, I asked him about what separates him from Kenny Hulshof and Sarah Steelman, and Kinder was increasingly vague in his answers. I didn't really think of anything of it, other than he didn't want to be bashing opponents so soon on the eve of a big G.O.P. dinner. When the interview was over, I headed back to the station to begin to log it. I didn't plan on heading back to the banquet, set to start around the 7 p.m. hour. "They won't say anything they wouldn't in a press release," I thought. Plus, we had a photographer shortage that night, so resources were skim. "A one-on-one would be better anyway," I assumed. Sitting at my desk, pondering my lead sentence for my Kinder story, my phone rang. "Dave, are you down here?," said a Republican staffer. "Down where?," I asked, a little caught off guard. "At the Plaza . . " "No," I replied. "Why?," noticing the urgency in his voice. "You should get down here . . . There's going to be a major announcement from Kinder," the staffer went on. "What? Whattta ya mean? Is he dropping out?," I pressed. "Can't say. I just wanted to give you the heads up, you probably should get down here quick," the staffer answered. "Ok, thanks, I appreciate it," I said, before slamming down the phone. "Sh*!," I said to my producer Brian. "I gotta go back. Kinder's going to drop out!," I told him as I gathered my coat and paged my photographer. The promo was already written and running for tonight's 10 p.m. -- Hear why the Lieutenant Governor wants a promotion . . . Tonight on KY3 News @ 10. I thought to myself, "seriously? I just talked to him." Somehow we made it back to University Plaza in time for Kinder's speech, which is now part of history. But I was pretty steamed. He had done an entire interview with me, leading me to believe he was candidate for Governor. Then, three hours later, he drops out. He had to know at that time that he was calling it quits, and never gave me any hint of it. The more I thought about it, the more I kick myself for not clearing asking, "So, are you a candidate for Governor?" But, to me it was still inexcusable that he mislead me. We ended up canning the outdated Kinder interview and just ran a soundbite of his decision to drop out at 10. Afterwards, still miffed, I went back to University Plaza, where all the Republicans were mingling in room parties. I finally spotted Kinder mingling and glad-handing with the party faithful. Many were thanking him "for doing the right thing." But his most loyal supporters and staffers, still seem shell-shocked from it all. Some of women with "Team Kinder" shirts on still had red eyes from the tears they had shed. When I finally confronted the Lieutenant Governor, he told me he didn't want to talk about it now, that he was not doing interviews. After my follow-ups had been ignored, and feeling a bit like a party crasher, I began to head out. As I moved closer to the door, a hand tapped me on the shoulder. It was Peter Kinder. "Look, that's just how it had to be, David," he said. "There's a time and a place for these things, and I had to do it that way." I argued a little, but I got his point. Still, with the knowledge this was coming, I just didn't understand why he or his staff let him do the interview with me in the first place. I didn't like being duped by a pol, but I respected him for on second-thought, trying to explain himself. But now there's a running joke in the newsroom. Every time Kinder schedules a news availability, someone snidely says, "he'll probably just back out of it . . . especially if Kit Bond's around."

2. "IT'S A FAKE POLL!" In the frenzied Republican primary race for Governor, Sarah Steelman's campaign knew perfectly well their effort was uphill. As the race slogged into the summer and Steelman continued to slug Hulshof on the airwaves, I was looking for data. Poll numbers. When I asked both sides about the horse race in June, both agreed that Hulshof was winning. The question always was whether it was a race. I had been asking for real numbers for awhile, and on June 12th, campaign manager John Hancock had delivered as promised. It showed Hulshof up 39%-26% with the rest undecided. More interesting were the internals on the spreadsheet. The internal had Hulshof up in southwest Missouri, 37%-34%. After giving Team Steelman the same opportunity to provide numbers, I published Hulshof's numbers on the blog. I also included them in a horse-race piece for TV. The Steelman entourage thought I was nuts. "That's a fake poll, Dave! Are you kidding me," said one rabid Steelman backer in a phone call. "They're feeding you bulls%^*. They just typed that up for you. It's probably screened." "Well, then show me what you got," I replied. No deal. Team Steelman's philosophy was: Why would we give our numbers to a reporter? They are for us. We paid for it. I replied: "You give them to a reporter to stop the inevitability argument that Hulshof is trying to create. If you really say you are down by only single-digits, prove it." They declined. "Dave, you're soooo naive," one repeatedly told me. "And they say they're up in Springfield! That's crazy, (insert big expletive) crazy!" Then, about a month later in July, after a public poll revealed that Steelman polled slightly better against Jay Nixon than Hulshof, Hulshof's spokesperson called to tell me not to read too much into it. He also bluntly told me their internals had them up by 10 over Steelman. To the blog it went. This infuriated Steelman's side even more. All along they believed they were closing the race (which they were), and now less than a month away, Hulshof's team is boasting double-digits again. Most of this was daily insider political junkie theatre. But the intensity of Team Steelman's behind-the-scenes response to the poll battle was ferocious. Push back is what you might call it. In the end, Steelman did close well -- but time ran out. A few days before the primary, Hulshof's Scott Baker asked me to predict the spread in an e-mail. I wrote him back: Hulshof by 4. That's about the spread he won by on August 5th. For once, I predicted not only the winner, but the spread. If you don't believe me, call Scott Baker.

3. "THE OBAMA FLIER" One day in late October, I walked into the newsroom and was presented with a story idea my executive producer seemed pretty excited about. A viewer had sent in a flier with Barack Obama's picture plastered on a $100 dollar bill, with the labels "socialist," "In Ahla We Trust" and "Food Stamps" all over it. The viewer said she had picked it up at Christian County Republican headquarters in Nixa. I was immediately skeptical. "She probably got it from some crazy outside in the parking lot," I said in our meeting. Nevertheless, it was worth looking into. Figuring that Christian County Republicans might suspect something was up if I pulled into their office, we decided to send a producer to go see if she could actually pick up one of these fliers inside the HQ. An hour later, she phoned back saying she walked right in and took some out. I couldn't believe it. "Dave, it IS Christian County," said one of my colleagues, who had lived here longer than me. Now I had a decision to make. Do I call the headquarters and inquire? I felt, for these type of allegations, this close to an election, that was too standard. So we went to the ambush technique, something I seldomly use. But in this case, after consulting some of my colleagues, I believe it was warranted. Myself and an intrepid photographer would walk right into the headquarters and stick a microphone in someone's face without asking first. Basically, it's being a hardcore, obnoxious a-hole. It's how reporters used to do it. Now, you're out of line. Disrespectful. Again, I don't believe it should be used regularly -- until a politician or group gives you reason to. This seemed to rise to that standard. The Obama flier was outrageous, no mater how you felt about him or his policies. So, we walked right into the quiet headquarters, with camera rolling and microphone in hand. I noticed a young guy spot us and sneak out the back. Another female staffer came around the corner. She was the victim of my onslaught. "Can you tell me why these fliers are in here? Are these approved by the Republican Party? Who paid for them? Do you believe Barack Obama is a Muslim? Are these really appropriate . . .? I went on . . . and on . . . The girl, who probably is in her early to mid 20s, looked stunned. Understandably, she stammered for a bit. She then just kept repeating that she was just a worker. Finally, breaking into tears, she screamed, "Please leave." That's when it hit me, and I felt bad. I walked out, having done what I had came there to do. Probably knowing in the back of my head I wasn't really there to get an answer, but rather pelt some GOPer with questions to prove the absurdity of the flier. It would make good TV, but also prove a point. But on the drive back, I wondered, "Had I gone too far?" "Was I too tough?" Another person who was in the office at the time, who defended the flier, also told me I was a jerk "for doing that to the girl." Then there was another Republican who said he disagreed with the tactics, and told me to "keep up the good work." My photographer was wondering as well. I wasn't even back at my desk 10 minutes, when my cell phone was ringing. It was state G.O.P. spokeswoman Tina Hervey. Wonder what this could be about? In the middle of deconstructing the events to my news director, I let it go to voicemail. Hervey was pretty upset with me. When I called her back, she said I had no right to throw a mic in some volunteer's face who had no control over the flier. But to be fair, Hervey also seemed personally disgusted by the flier. She just thought the way I went about the story was wrong. She argued that I should have come to her first, and not barge into the local G.O.P. I said someone needed to own up to this. I told her that if we tipped her off, she would have made sure the fliers were gone before someone even commented. We went back and forth. But she went ahead and got in touch with the Christian County G.O.P. chair to call me. She wanted to make the point that he should be owning up to this "racist flier" and not some low-level twenty something. The chair had been on vacation, but in a phone interview, he finally admitted that he permitted the fliers to be placed at headquarters. He said it was poor judgment. But now I had to determine if my combative clips with this staffer would run in my big lead story at 10 p.m. Hervey was lobbying furiously against it. She said this volunteer shouldn't be seen as the villain for something she had little to do with. "She worked in the office they were being distributed in," I retorted stubbornly. "Didn't she have some responsibility for what's coming out of the office?" But I was caught up in the moment. Hervey was probably right. The two-minute piece on the Obama flier was complete, but after a long night of constructive back and forth with Hervey, I decided to kill even the small 3 seconds of sound I had inserted for what we call in the business "natural sound color." The clips would have made the viewer at home immediately sit up and pay attention, but it was not worth dragging this volunteer into it. And to be honest, the story was strong enough on its own. Score a victory for Hervey. If it was an elected official or even a crotchety old man, the clip might have stayed in. But we journalists do have compassion for other people, and despite our critics, we do deeply think about the consequences of our actions.

1 comment:

Matthew Block said...

Posts like these are the reason I'll defend you as a good political reporter to anyone, Dave. The transparency with which you're willing to discuss things which you consider your mistakes, and also the interaction with the Steelman and Hulshof campaigns makes this blog a great resource to viewers, politicians, and other journalists (professional or amateur). Keep up the good work!