Beyond the Hat Rack

“Mike, why do you have to be so mean?”

The Governor of Kansas was characterizing my reporting of her actions when she confronted me on her way out of the Statehouse just after I wrapped up a live shot for the 6 o’clock news. I had detailed Joan Finney’s difficulty achieving consensus on her legislative proposals, even from her fellow Democrats, owing in part, to her eccentric personal governing style.

“Governor, it’s not personal, I’m just doing my job,” attempting my best Woodward and Bernstein. “It’s journalism.”

Gov. Joan Finney at her 1991 Inauguration (courtesy Kansas State Historical Society)

Gov. Joan Finney at her 1991 Inauguration (courtesy Kansas State Historical Society)

Gov. Finney was a populist, devout Catholic and believed in predestination. She struggled with communicating broadly, but one-on-one she shined. She loved the California-esque notion of policy initiatives on the ballot. When the news media reported these truths, and public opinion turned south, she seemed not to fully grasp that when these ideas she’d held all her life became more widely-known, Kansans altered their view of her. She had these same ideas for 16 years as State Treasurer. But reporters don’t do live shots on the 6 o’clock news detailing the daily goings-on of the State Treasurer.

My experience covering Gov. Finney gave me valuable insight into my next job, when I literally eased over to the other side of the cameras/microphones as spokesperson for her successor. Like Finney, Gov. Bill Graves brought a lifelong, deeply-held self-view. Son of a successful trucking company family, he was guided by the notion that to those whom much is given, much is expected.

I’m not saying Graves was right and Finney was wrong. I’m saying the makeup of the individual human heart, mind and gut long before they enter public service is what matters. Like any random group of human beings, new public office-holders bring varying depths of knowledge, skill and capacity.

After leaving journalism and gubernatorial spokespersonism, I have been able to look back at those systems with what I hope is an informed view. Now, I’m a consumer -- of news and of governing. In that role, seems to me, I have two significant responsibilities:

1. Find and stick with news media outlets I trust.
2. Draw my own conclusions, aided by intellectual curiosity.

My father would have characterized Point #2 as “use your head for more than a hat rack.” Implied within Point #1 is if the trust wavers, find other outlets. Journalists are human beings, subject to emotions, financial bottom-lines, bad hair days, competition and adrenaline.

Joan Finney thought I was mean because I presented the facts in a manner that conflicted with her self-view. Maybe I was. Clearly, I hurt her feelings. On live TV. Back then, I’d have said, suck it up Governor and put on your big girl pants. Today, the recovering narcissist in me looks at those on both sides of the cameras/microphones and sees the angst, often followed closely by the rationalizations and justifications.

We may think our politicians are morons, brilliant or just eccentric. Those conclusions are informed by the words they say and the actions they take, which are reported in the news we consume.

Politicians may think reporters are enemies of the people, or in my case, just mean. If it’s not adversarial, it’s propaganda. Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy. It’s tense and messy by design. Truth is truth. I rely on the news media to convey it.

There are three components to this proposition. Public servants, those who report on them and the rest of us. All three cogs need to be functioning optimally for the system to work.