In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Honeymoon Is Over, Now Comes the Divorce
By Laura McCallum
September 23, 1999
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Covering Governor Ventura has become a growing challenge for the Capitol press corps. The state's chief executive has shown an increasing willingness to bypass the reporters who cover him on a daily basis. The governor hasn't granted interviews with most of the local media for months, and when he has, they have been limited to specific topics. Observers say Ventura doesn't need Capitol press coverage like other politicians. He has a statewide weekly radio show and the ability to generate international news interest.

Ventura: We're hot and we're back with "Lunch with the Governor" here from the stately manor of the Capitol over in St. Paul, Minnesota. Governor Jesse Ventura here talking to Minnesota.
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For a series of stories about the administration of Governor Ventura, go to MPR's Ventura section.
The governor's radio show gives him an hour of unedited statewide airtime each week to express his views. The callers appear to be heavily screened; many resemble Jean from Red Wing, who called in a couple of weeks ago.
Jean: Governor, I just wanted to tell you what a wonderful job I think you're doing as governor for the people of Minnesota. You're the hardest-working governor I can remember. You have made me interested in politics again, and I just think you're just doing a super job, you're a hard-working governor.
Ventura:Well, thank you Jean, I appreciate that.
Members of the Capitol press corps haven't found the governor quite as eager to talk to them. Capitol press conferences are a rarity, he's become reluctant to take questions at public appearance, and he cancelled a scheduled media availability a week ago. Most reporters who routinely cover Ventura haven't been granted a one-on-one interview in months, despite repeated requests. There are a few exceptions; Forum Communications' John Sundvor talked to Ventura about agriculture this week, and the editor of the St. Paul Legal Ledger, John Fischer, had a half-hour interview with the governor on his push for a unicameral legislature early this month. Fischer says the ground rules were simple: If he asked about anything other than a one-house legislature, Ventura would walk out of the interview.
Fischer: He seems to be very carefully and very cleverly picking and choosing who he wants to talk to. And what it seems to me that he's doing is choosing venues in which he can control the rules. To tell you the truth, my view about when he agreed to talk to me, was that he was going to use me as essentially a dress rehearsal. He wanted to test out his thoughts, make sure he got everything right before he talked to anybody else about this thing.
The governor's spokesman, John Wodele, won't discuss Ventura's policy on interview requests. He says it's an internal matter.
Wodele: That is a decision that is made in consultation with the governor, depending on what the subject matter is, his time and availability. But when we get those requests, how we make the decisions, I just don't think we want to specifically talk about that.
Wodele did say the governor has been trying to be more inclusive and reach out to rural Minnesota. And although Ventura said a month ago he would decline national requests so he could concentrate on local issues, Ventura has spoken in recent days to the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Capitol Hill publication The Hill. Public relations consultant Cindy Brucato, former communications director for Governor Arne Carlson, says Ventura gets headlines and airtime whether or not he agrees to lengthy interviews.
Brucato: I don't think that the governor needs the Capitol press corps, I don't think the governor respects the Capitol press corps; that's probably unfortunate.
Brucato says Ventura's opinion probably stems in part from the national media's tendency to focus on politicians' personal lives. She says the public thinks the media has gone too far in its scrutiny of matters such as President Clinton's sex life and George W. Bush's possible drug use. And by taking on reporters, Ventura has an easy target that the public isn't likely to defend.
Brucato: They're not going to be holding rallies on the steps of the Capitol, saying let our reporters in!
Former St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Jack Coffman covered every Minnesota governor from the mid-'70s to the beginning of the Ventura administration. He says many of them tried to control media access and set ground rules for reporters.
Coffman: It was common knowledge that governors or candidates didn't like talking about some issues, but that didn't mean you wouldn't ask about them. I mean, if they don't want to talk about it, that's their business and they don't have to answer the question. But to get agreement from you beforehand that you won't ask certain questions, that's new ground.
Most politicians tend to think any coverage is good as long as it gets their name out, according to political science professor Chris Gilbert from Gustavus Adolphus College. He says Ventura's effort to control media access may backfire in the long run if Minnesotans feel they're not getting substantive answers from their governor.
Gilbert: Part of the deal in running for office and being elected is understanding that the normal avenues of communication between the elected and those who the elected are represented have to stay open. It strikes me that it's not only counterproductive, but I think it's against the spirit of the very nature of representative government for elected officials not to interact with the media as a way of getting messages across to the public.
Most news organizations say they'll continue to cover the governor's public appearances, even if their interview requests are denied. Many reporters have speculated on why the governor appears to be shutting them out, but no one knows for sure; he's not granting interviews to talk about it.