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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

Ventura Highway   

When it comes to the news media, Minnesota's high-profile governor takes a my-way-or-the-highway approach. Has that led to softball coverage?

Related reading:   Fluff and Stuff

By Jack B. Coffman
     


MINNESOTANS HAD LITTLE doubt that their new celebrity governor would make changes at the Capitol. For one thing, he had already replaced an office painting of 19th-century politician Ignatius Donnelly with an autographed Rolling Stones poster. And instead of tooling around in the Lincoln Town Car his predecessors had favored, Gov. Jesse Ventura had said he'd be styling in a Lincoln four-wheel drive. He ordered it with heavy-duty suspension and bumpers, "for running over reporters."
Like many of Ventura's remarks about the media, it was part joke, part jab in the eye. Jest aside, it was not a good sign for the news media, who, like the general public, were wondering what the election would mean for them.
Even before Ventura was sworn in on January 4, he made it clear he was no fan of journalists, who, he noted with some justification, had ignored his campaign. After his swearing-in, it was obvious there would be war.
In the months since, Minnesota's public affairs reporters have faced both the pleasures and the perils of doing business with him. On the one hand, the popular governor bashes journalists whenever he chooses to, and he chooses often--contributing, some say, to the media's lopsided interest in less-contentious stories when they should be writing hard-hitting pieces. On the other hand, the guy is the best political story in ages, and reporters are getting good play on just about any story that has his name connected with it.
Things began changing quickly after Election Day in November, when Minnesotans awoke to find they had elected an ex-pro wrestler and actor turned Reform Party candidate. Many were shocked; none more so than the media, who were paid to know better.
Since then, Minnesota journalists have been grappling with the problem of covering a guy who is famous worldwide, but who is also chief executive of the state. That balancing act is tough: Reporters are covering someone larger than life, who used to wear pink tights and a feather boa, says he doesn't wear underwear, has written about encounters with hookers, pals around with fellow actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and draws crowds on the East and West coasts to book signings to promote his memoir.
He says things that would sink lesser figures. He made a comment on David Letterman's late-night talk show that painted the Irish as drunks and another during a pending treaty-rights case to the effect that Native Americans ought to go back to fishing from canoes.
His articulated opinions of reporters have been no better. He says they are nosy, disrespectful, impertinent, inaccurate and slow to correct mistakes. Of course, his predecessors on occasion have said all these things, but not with the frequency and at the decibel level employed by this governor.
Ask the wrong question and a reporter gets no more access, and phone calls aren't returned. A political reporter's newspaper writes an editorial Ventura doesn't like, and that reporter gets journalistic Siberia.
Many who follow Minnesota's public affairs say Ventura is winning the war with the press. Coverage of his administration has been soft, they say; the state's media are obsessed with the Ventura celebrity and too infrequently zero in on his policy. Given a choice between covering Ventura's appearance on the "Today" show and his call for lower class size, light-rail transit and tax refunds, editors pick "Today" for top play, observers say.
Reporters and editors at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis' Star Tribune disagree, insisting the governor has not gotten a free ride from either paper.
Together, the two papers published more than 170 A-1 stories focusing on Ventura or his policies between January 1 and July 31, a Lexis-Nexis search showed. The majority had hard-news themes, although a few dozen could be categorized as celebrity pieces.
"I think we've gone as far as we can go in outlining what he proposes," says Star Tribune Capitol reporter Dane Smith, adding he's seen little reform from this Reform Party governor.
Polls continue to show Ventura is extremely popular with the voters, so what he is doing seems to be working. One conducted July 6-14 by the Star Tribune and KMSP-TV showed he had the highest job-approval rating ever snared by a Minnesota governor: 73 percent gave him a positive rating overall.

WITH THE EX-WRESTLER in office, the Capitol scene has moved closer to Hollywood than the mythical Lake Wobegon. Television viewers have become accustomed to seeing their governor talking to Jay Leno, David Letterman and Larry King. There is a Ventura action figure that has become a popular toy.
Two incidents, in particular, give some perspective to the breadth of the Ventura mania.
It was mid-February, and U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican, was among 24 members of the House and Senate accompanying President Clinton on a state visit to Mexico. Shortly after he stepped off the plane and moved down the receiving line, the Minnesotan got a surprise that interrupted the formality of the situation.
The congressman recalls: "We had just gotten off Air Force One, and President Clinton introduced me to President Ernesto Zedillo as a congressman from Minnesota." Zedillo's eyes "got big as saucers, and he said, `You know Jesse?' Later on, Zedillo asked me six or seven times if I would arrange a trade mission to bring Ventura to Mexico.... The same thing happened with cab drivers--they wanted to know about Jesse."
This spring, a group of touring Turkish political leaders arrived in Minnesota to meet the host for their visit, the Republican majority leader of the state House of Representatives. "The first question out of their mouths when they got off the plane was, `Can we meet Ventura?' " says state Rep. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican from a suburban Twin Cities district. "And, in fact, they did. When the governor entered the reception room, they stood in a straight line, all holding up Ventura bumper stickers."
Even a governor whose name is known to Mexican presidents and Turkish politicians should be covered at home as a chief executive who proposes budgets and transit plans. Yet Minnesota reporters find it's a challenge to get good play for such topics when the governor is off making appearances on national chat shows, complaining about a made-for-TV-movie about him, peddling his new book and agreeing to ref a professional wrestling match, as he did this summer.
Pawlenty recalls, "A fairly well-respected member of the press corps came up to me and said, `We won't attack him because he is too popular. But if you do, we will cover it.' " Pawlenty was amazed.
Ventura often does not reciprocate that politeness. He "mocks the media, he ridicules them," Pawlenty says. "It is really clear he has very little respect or appreciation for the media."
Steven Schier, chairman of the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, says the governor doesn't seem to realize how good he has it. "Ventura gets more puff coverage of his personal endeavors than any governor in history. I don't know what he's complaining about."
"He's still being treated with velvet gloves," concurs state Sen. Roger Moe, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leader in the state Senate.
Coverage has been "decidedly timid, often bordering on the fawning," agrees Steve Dornfeld, associate editor of the Pioneer Press editorial page and a former Capitol reporter.
The prevailing attitude outside Statehouse media circles is that stories often focus on Ventura's celebrity. Every major state news outlet has staffed his book-signing tours to the East and West coasts aimed at promoting his book, "I Ain't Got Time to Bleed." (The title comes from one of Ventura's lines in the movie "Predator.") Stories dealing with Ventura's appearances on TV shows got top play.
But Pat Kessler, Capitol reporter for CBS' WCCO-TV in Minneapolis and a respected electronic journalist, says the focus on Ventura's celebrity often can't be avoided. Even when serious matters are up for coverage, he says, Ventura short-circuits tough coverage by raising personal issues.
"We spent an entire day following a story about the governor changing course on an income tax cut," Kessler says. "The story was written and produced." But that same day, Ventura spoke on a radio talk show and announced his wife was going to retire from first lady duties. "That's what led our news. The tax story never aired."
Ventura managed in May to upstage part of the annual Governor's Fishing Opener, a top state tourist event, by blasting around on his personal Jet Ski. And at the end of this year's legislative session in May, a time when previous governors have crowed about their accomplishments, Ventura diverted attention from the main news event by calling on Gen. Colin Powell to run for president on the Reform Party ticket, perhaps with Ventura as running mate.

IN ADDITION TO Ventura's celebrity, reporters feel something new at the Capitol: The governor's anger at them. Journalists struggle with the knowledge that the governor may be banging them off the turnbuckle when he doesn't like what he reads or sees.
"There is a genuine anger and hostility, particularly in pack situations," says the Star Tribune's Smith.
Kessler, who has been the target of Ventura's anger, says the governor is "thin-skinned," and that a "threat of violence" surrounds him. "He tries to intimidate reporters physically and verbally." The governor is a massive 6 feet 4 and has a foghorn voice, as well as a withering gaze.
Debra O'Connor of the Pioneer Press Capitol staff sees potential insecurity by the governor as one possible reason for his hostility. "Because he's a newcomer, reporters know a lot more about the issues than he does, and he takes follow-up questions as a challenge," she says.
On the other hand, every reporter who has interviewed Ventura one-on-one notes that he is unfailingly courteous and gracious at such times.
And some, like Star Tribune Capitol reporter Patricia Lopez Baden, say Ventura's tongue is at least part way in his cheek when he rails at the press. "He's very shrewd," she says. "He picks an enemy that solidifies his bond with the common people, because they don't like the media either."
Some of the governor's anger may stem from contempt. Ventura says he thinks the media create news, and they concentrate on his fame to make money. "They try to hide the fact that they do it," he says in an interview in his office. "Coming from the media [he was a radio talk show host prior to election], I know it's all rating points. Rating points mean money. In the case of the newspapers, selling newspapers means money." He says the media should own up to their quest for profits.
The governor admits that pointed questioning gets under his skin. He acknowledges that reporters should challenge authority, but he insists they should accept the answers they get and not continue coming at the same subject from different directions. "The thing that bugs me is the little tricks they try to pull on me," he says. "Do they think I just came in from the cornfield?"
Ventura says he doesn't mind attacks on his policies. But personal attacks are another thing. "When a media writer writes about my policies and criticizes them, I can accept that. But when they throw in little descriptive adjectives, then it becomes personal."
However, the governor has been known to dish personal invective, too. On his weekly radio talk show, Ventura called one persistent tax-policy critic a "fat load" and a "McIdiot."
He sees the situation as a struggle for control. "They want to control the conversation, so there is a battle or friction there," Ventura says of press conferences and interviews. "I want to control the conversation, and so do they."

SEVERAL NEWS OUTLETS have been targets of Ventura's anger, but none more than the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which the governor says gives him the Rodney Dangerfield treatment.
"They haven't shown me any respect," Ventura says. "You've got a newspaper that doesn't respect me and shows no respect for the office I hold. So I don't respect them anymore."
Ventura says he and an assistant once called the Pioneer Press to complain about a story. Finding the executive editor was on vacation, they asked for the managing editor, only to be told she was in a meeting and couldn't come to the phone. He's still upset about that.
Editor Walker Lundy says the phone-call incident was the result of miscommunication. However, he says the paper is delighted with the governor's celebrity; Lundy added a reporter to the Capitol staff just to concentrate on that angle.
"I thought on election night this was the greatest gift they could give to a newspaper editor," he says. But he disagrees with critics who say coverage has lacked substance.
"People who have read our newspaper since he was elected know who he is and what he's about," Lundy says. "He hasn't done much in the way of serious governing.... He's a pop culture figure. This isn't some kind of new political movement."
Over the years, Minnesota governors have often sided with one of the papers. Ventura's Republican predecessor, Arne Carlson, was vocal in his dislike of the Minneapolis paper.
The result of Ventura's anger with the Pioneer Press, re-porters say, has been more access for the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune. The two newspapers are engaged in one of the nation's hottest newspaper wars, and the governor is seen as favoring the state's largest paper over its competitor. "We got more access as a result," says the Star Tribune's Lopez Baden.
More access or not, Lopez Baden and fellow Capitol reporter Smith say critics, most of them political opponents of the Reform Party governor, simply want the media "to do their work for them."
The two Star Tribune writers say it is nearly impossible to separate Ventura's celebrity from his substance. And they say the governor's proposals dealing with such subjects as light-rail transit, a unicameral Legislature and smaller class sizes offered few details, so the celebrity material carries more weight. "His follow-through is minimal," Smith says.
When the Ventura persona is removed from the coverage, what's left is some rather unexciting fodder. More money was approved this year for public education--about $700 million more than in the previous budget--but then, isn't more money typically approved each year for education? The Legislature enacted a massive $1.25 billion refund from the state budget surplus, but everyone in the state had been expecting that to come for more than a year. Money was appropriated for a light-rail project in Minneapolis, but that had been debated for more than 20 years.
Pioneer Press Capitol reporters also say they've covered the issues. They point to stories about the cost to the taxpayers for the governor's security during the book-signing tours, his dealings with lawmakers and changes in course on items such as how to refund the surplus money. But they, too, say it is impossible to avoid the governor's widespread fame when dealing with state issues.
"This guy has a literary agent. He has a theatrical agent. He's got guys making deals," says the Pioneer Press' Jim Ragsdale, who thinks the governor's celebrity has boosted public interest in political coverage. Ragsdale and other public affairs journalists are seeing their work get more prominent display than they were used to when Minnesota governors were rarely more than regional figures. Not long ago, they were covering a governor whose goal was to improve the state's bond rating--not exactly titillating reading.
Even when Ventura does talk about serious policy, his celebrity status tends to eclipse serious coverage. Testifying before a House dairy subcommittee late in June, Ventura blasted the arcane federal dairy pricing system. Meetings of the subcommittee rarely attract much attention. This time the room was packed as the Washington press corps maneuvered for a peek at the governor.
How did Minnesota's largest papers and TV stations handle the story? Along with the obligatory stories on his testimony ("Ventura testifies in D.C.--and milks it," the Star Tribune reported out front June 25; "Ventura Milks Celebrity Status for Dairy Farmers," the Pioneer Press blared the same day), they ran photos of Ventura downing a glass of milk.

THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE of Ventura's clash with the media is his communications director, John Wodele. "There are days when it makes my job difficult," he says.
Unlike his predecessors, Wodele has to balance the demands of the Minnesota press with those based outside the state. He says there is "tremendous pressure" for access to Ventura.
In order to cope, he has broken media requests into "local, regional or national." Preference is given to outlets with readers or viewers in Minnesota. The New York Times is considered regional because thousands of Minnesotans subscribe.
"We got a request from the Baltimore Sun, and we turned it down at first," Wodele says. "Then Jules Witcover called, and we granted it, because he has a column that sometimes runs in the local papers.... We did the St. Petersburg Times because they sold themselves as a paper that gets great readership from vacationing Minnesotans and Minnesotans who live there during the winter."
Wodele, who gets high marks from the Minnesota media, calls the Capitol press corps aggressive and downplays the accusations of kid-glove treatment. "They are tracking him like no governor has ever been tracked before, because they know he is good for business," he says.
There is a hint of playfulness in Ventura's press bashing. He says he likes to "tease" the media--something he thinks reporters need. His press attitude has been compared to his professional wrestling act.
In wrestling, there's a good guy and a bad guy. As governor, Ventura can always be the good guy who can take the media on, slap them around and await the applause from a public that doesn't care much for reporters anyway.
He said as much during a speech in May to the Society of Professional Journalists. After telling media types that he had expected to title his speech "How I hate the media," he expanded on the theme. "I enjoy my relationship with the media, I really do--no, I do," he said, as chuckles riffled through the crowd. "Because I'm a warrior. And I'm at an age now when I can't go out and be a warrior, so I have to be a mental one. So I've chosen you to be my adversaries."
Ventura sheds more light on this matchup in his book: "The prime directive of wrestling is to protect your opponent as you would protect yourself. It's their living, just as it's yours.
"You have to learn to make the match as realistic as possible without doing real harm."