In politics, often a zero-sum game with only one winner, there are two major things that worry politicians. The first is lack of money. The second is what the press says about them, especially the growing number of hate-spewing and often anonymous blogs. There’s not much politicians can do about blogs or letters to the editor that are often placed by competing campaigns, but “negative ink” can lose an election.
When a journalist writes something that gores a politician’s ox, there are several approaches taken to halt the hurt. The easiest is to have a staff member (our tax dollars at work) call to discuss the offending piece with the journalist. These are often just calls to alert you that the powerful politician is watching you. The merits of the offending article or commentary are discussed. Sometimes there is a valid point to be made, and if the journalist is an honest broker there may even be accommodations made. Once a governor’s top assistant called me to get a former governor who was doing a regular program off our air. That was followed by our station’s exclusion from the state budget. Most political writers are not wealthy, often have wives and children and may consider these communications to be somewhat ominous.
Stage two is often a call directly from a powerful politician. Most of these calls start out nicely. I remember one call from a governor whom I really liked. He took great exception to something I said and it was very late at night. I was fast asleep when the phone rang and the harangue continued and the guy just kept yakking. Finally, I just said, “Governor, can I say something?” and the guy just said, “No, you’ve said enough!” and hung up. My wife said, “Who was that?” I said, “The governor,” and she said to me, “You’re too much.”
There is one assemblyman I really like who calls me every once in a while after my radio commentaries to tell me how I got it wrong. He’s fun, he teaches you things that you might not have known. And while he has seldom changed my mind, I love to talk to him.
Of course, there are politicians who think nothing of calling your publisher or boss. One doofus approached a college president where I was teaching with a demand that I be fired for what I was writing and saying. He actually brought the county chairman with him to make the point. The president mentioned the word “tenure,” and they went away.
So every time you read a political piece, think about what the politician reading it may be thinking when they read it. As for me, I kind of like these calls. Reminds you that you’re alive and in the game.
Alan S. Chartock is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and an executive publisher at The Legislative Gazette.
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