So Meg Whitman has decided to be the first statewide candidate for office in memory to blow off the San Francisco Chronicle. Whitman is passing on the tradition of an on the record conversation with the paper’s editorial board and reporting staff.
She may not need them in order to win her race for governor -- the $119 million she's pumped into her campaign make it easy to get her message out without the media's help -- but it’s a bit of a step back from the progress she has made with those who cover her campaign since an embarrassing incident way back in March.
Whitman had invited the news media to cover her visit to the Southern Pacific rail yard in Oakland. For some reason camera crews and reporters were denied access to photograph her actually “touring” the rail yard but they were allowed to tape her “conversation” with Santa Fe officials about the importance of the port and the transit corridor.
When the meeting was over, Whitman, sitting at a table in front of a number of television microphones, was asked a question. Her press aides interjected, saying questions of the candidate weren’t allowed. The reporters were escorted out of the room… camera lenses were blocked.
The news coverage that night was brutal. The incident was even covered nationally by the Washington Post and other papers. The campaign had blown it and eMeg knew it. Prior to that night’s broadcast she called and apologize to each of the reporters who had been present at the Oakland event . Ever since Whitman has entertained questions after almost every “town hall” and has routinely granted TV stations one-on-one interviews.
It was a wise move. Maybe she has enough money to take her message directly to the voters. Unlike her opponent, she doesn’t need the "free media" that comes with being in the news each day. But the last thing Meg Whitman wants taking form in the collective mind of the state’s political journalists is that she is just another Arnold.
You see back when Mr. Schwarzenegger first ran for governor, events like what happened at the SP rail yard took place routinely, only without the apology. Arnold didn’t need the press and his staff made a point of letting them know it. It was the kind of relationship that harbored suspicion of the candidate and then the politician. The impact was felt shortly afterward.
In just over a year, Arnold was pushing five major ballot measures before voters in a special election. The rope lines that were part of every event did more than corral the press (and their coverage of campaign events). They also represented a barrier that kept Mr. Schwarzenegger from ever getting the benefit of the doubt in the coverage. His critics were always accessible and never told reporters where to stand and when to move.
When it comes to the California press corps, Whitman is already at a disadvantage.
Corporate CEOs are not the kind of people most reporters have as drinking buddies and while I don’t know of anyone who tips back a few with Jerry Brown the fact is they are simply more comfortable with him. Brown has a long standing relationship with the give and take of the campaign coverage. He never takes a hard question personally and has a wealth of stories in and out of government that make him an interesting interview. Whitman however is getting better with the press each day and while she may have faced difficult questions during the Chronicle visit she would have gained a lot of respect by toughing it out.
Remember... the campaign is the easy part.