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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

Media Smackdown!   

Since he was elected, it's been war between the media and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     

Few know better than former wrestling star turned Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura that any hero in white tights needs a foil in black. And though he's traded his tights for suits, Ventura still hasn't retired the idea of a foil.

And no one knows that better than his beleaguered Capitol press.

Like so much "Smackdown," when it comes to the media, the good governor is always ready to rumble. Since he was elected three years ago, it's been one brawl after another: He tried to get reporters to wear badges that identified them as "media jackals." He's threatened to run them over with his Lincoln Navigator and throw them out windows. His badmouthing is so routine, it's expected. (See "Ventura Highway," September 1999.)

Yet the longstanding grudge match seemed to hit a new low this fall. During an October trip by Ventura to Ground Zero in New York City, Minnesota journalists reported that "Good Morning America" not only paid for the visit but also enjoyed exclusive access to the governor the entire time he was there. Infuriated, Ventura urged Minnesotans to boycott print and TV news.

"Don't read either newspaper and don't watch the evening news," Ventura told a talk radio audience after the New York trip. Talk radio, by the way, is not included in the ban, perhaps because Ventura has a show of his own--after the trip he used it to declare "war" on the media, promising to have them "running and hiding as fast as the Taliban."

Ventura's been doing his best to keep his word. Twin Cities' alt-weekly City Pages has tagged the governor's latest antics "Jesse's Jihad." "It's total war all the time," says Dane Smith, longtime politics reporter for Minneapolis' Star Tribune.

The boycott was just the first strike. At one point in October Ventura told local reporters they could kiss their interview privileges goodbye. Then, backpedaling, he said he'd do interviews, but only with certain people and without tape recorders no more microphones on podiums either.

A few days later, Ventura put the kibosh on releasing his itinerary. Though the governor said the move was intended to keep him from terrorists' sights, it also left the media with no idea where he was and, therefore, no way to cover him. After the state's Associated Press bureau put out an all-points-bulletin for media outlets to give a shout when they spotted Ventura, the governor relented on this too, agreeing to hand-deliver schedules to certain reporters on the condition they not be published. But not before Minnesotan Garrison Keillor fired off in a New York Times column: "Our governor has gone under cover.... The governor--who I will refer to as Larry so as to throw terrorists off the trail.... "

John Wodele, Ventura's frazzled spokesman, says though he's personally tired of his boss' war on the media, there's not much chance of a truce. That's because, a., Ventura thinks reporters subsist on the sensational and will invent it if they don't see it, and, b., Ventura enjoys the fight. "In wrestling he was a bad guy, a heel," Wodele says. "And what do you do when you're a heel and you've got a guy down in the ring? You kick 'em.... And he kicks 'em."

Not surprisingly, the governor wasn't available for an interview for this story.

Smith knows it's hardly unusual for politicians and reporters to be at odds. But he says Ventura takes it to a new level. "He disparages all of us.... He's the most thin-skinned governor I've ever dealt with."

Nick Coleman, a news columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, guesses that much of Ventura's hostility is born of insecurity--a fear that someone will catch him uninformed about state goings-on. That mixed in with a healthy helping of bad-boy wrestling shtick.

"He uses a boxing technique with reporters and tries to put them on the defensive," Coleman says. "He jabs 'em so much they can't get in close and hurt you."

Pat Kessler, longtime political reporter for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, is all too familiar with that strategy. He estimates he has only talked to Ventura, one-on-one, three times in three years. His record is 41 interview requests turned down in a row. On the rare occasions reporters do get close, it's all about the governor's in-your-face bit, complete with bellowing, finger-waving and stare-downs.

Kessler wants to make a montage of all the times the governor has slammed the door in his face and set it to the tune of "Blue Danube." "Da-da-da-da-daaaah, slam, slam, slam, slam," Kessler sings.

"What you see is what you get with this fellow. His whole persona, his whole Jesse Inc., is about this truculent, brawling, fightin' man--not completely an act," Smith says.

And the media is his made-to-order adversary.

"He likes to have opponents. If no one's against him, it's like he's in the ring without his trunks on," Coleman says.

In a state with a history of loose cannons in the executive office, reporters know they're dealing with the loosest yet. Coleman points to the case of Gov. John Lind, perhaps Ventura's political inspiration. On his last day in office in 1901, Lind put on his top hat and overcoat, left the office and made a beeline to the Pioneer Press offices. Upon arrival the governor took off his hat and overcoat, freeing his one arm to punch the editor in the nose.

"That should have taught us to stay an arm's length away from the governor," laughs Coleman. "Though now we're afraid that we're about to meet our first governor that slugs reporters while in office."