Staff Columnist

Make time for media, governor

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds congratulates Judge Susan Christensen as her pick to be the newest member of the Iowa Supreme Court. Reynolds made the announcement in her formal Capitol office as Christensen’s family looked on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 1, 2018. (Photo by Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds congratulates Judge Susan Christensen as her pick to be the newest member of the Iowa Supreme Court. Reynolds made the announcement in her formal Capitol office as Christensen’s family looked on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 1, 2018. (Photo by Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)

So our governor is curtailing her weekly scheduled Q and As with Statehouse reporters. This, we’re told, is no big deal.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and her staff insist she still will be available for journalists’ questions in other scattered venues as she campaigns for election this summer and fall. She’ll have other official public events where she might take queries. There will just be fewer scheduled news conferences in Des Moines with reporters who cover her administration on a daily basis. She’ll be accessible. Probably.

And yet, at a recent scheduled “public” event in Burlington, a discussion with local farmers dealing with fallout from President Donald Trump’s trade war, reporters were barred from attending. And yet, after calling reporters together to announce a new Iowa Supreme Court justice, Reynolds did not take reporters’ questions about her pick. Maybe these are unfortunate coincidences, dropping scheduled news conferences, closing doors and ducking questions. Perhaps it’s a troubling trend. Will debates and editorial boards be next? And maybe a governor facing tough electoral sledding is tightening control of the message Iowans receive about her leadership. Better they get it from her campaign machine than a bunch of nattering nabobs asking about problems.

Also consider a report this week by the Des Moines Register that Reynolds is tossing a vocal critic of privatized Medicaid’s dismal performance from an advisory council overseeing the switch to managed care. When messengers complicate the message, push them aside.

This is political strategy and lousy governing, which seem to go hand in hand. We’ve seen it before, as Register columnist and editorial page editor Kathie Obradovich noted recently. Gov. Chet Culver, too, curtailed press access, leading to “where’s Chet?” barbs. It was one ingredient in a recipe for one-term wonder.

I know, as a scribe sitting 100 miles from the Golden Dome of Wisdom, I’m not supposed to care much about these weekly news conferences, a tradition going back to the late Gov. Bob Ray. But as a consumer of news and an Iowan sitting 100 miles from the Statehouse, I care a lot.

Things happen, issues arise and problems surface. With a scheduled news conference, we know, at least once each week, the governor will have to address them in public. Does she answer? Does she dodge? This is how Iowans find out what sort of leader we have steering the ship, not through some 30-second ad touting her humble roots.

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Beyond its practical value, the weekly news conference has symbolic importance. Iowa prides itself on having an open, accessible state government. Public scrutiny is vital to responsible governing. We’ve seen too often during the past two years what sort of governing we get when doors are closed, details are sketchy and the public is shut out of backroom lawmaking.

So Reynolds should set aside 30 minutes in her weekly schedule to take media questions. That leaves plenty of time for campaigning. Sure, past governors skipped news conferences. But now, more than ever, Iowans need to see a healthy, robust exchange between elected officials and journalists still can happen.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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