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Silence in the halls of the Capitol

By Matt Pommer

Regular, sit-down news conferences by Wisconsin governors have disappeared from the government landscape.

Gov. Scott Walker will answer reporters’ questions as he goes through the corridors or after ribbon-cutting events, but regularly scheduled meetings with the Capitol press corps are gone.

Periodic news conferences were regular practice for much of the last half of the 20th century. The practice deeply eroded when Democrat Jim Doyle became the state’s chief executive.

Doyle also ended the practice of providing full schedules of his activities. Similarly, Walker has failed to fully report his activities and travel.

Some would suggest the Doyle-Walker approach reflects changes in government communications, but they have not served either governor well.

Doyle could have defended his budget policies in such a setting. Walker is in the midst of a recall fight, in part because he didn’t explain his policies to the news media and public.

Sadly, the state Capitol press corps is greatly reduced from times past. At one time, there were two wire services at the Capitol. Now, it’s only The Associated Press.

At one time, there were too many reporters to fit into the Capitol press room. Now, there are empty desks.

There only is one daily, general circulation newspaper in Milwaukee and one in Madison.

Television stations seem to prefer “exclusive” interviews, but those seldom add to the general governmental knowledge.

Gaylord Nelson had regular news conferences. Warren Knowles would alternate his weekly news conferences between morning and afternoon to provide balance between morning and evening daily newspapers and the news cycles of broadcast reporters.

Patrick Lucey was far better at answering reporters’ questions than giving speeches. Lee Dreyfus was a superb communicator who delighted in the interchanges with the reporters.

Tony Earl, Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum scheduled regular meetings with the Capitol press corps.

The questions are tougher in a news conference than in gubernatorial visits to newspapers and televisions away from Madison. Institutional memory of government is not as acute in those settings, allowing governors to peddle their own views.

Regular news conferences let the public hear the governor rather than the “spokesmen” for the administration. Having a “spokesman” answer a question certainly is easier journalism.

But politicians seem to prefer talking to friendly personalities. Walker, for example, has made regular appearances on conservative radio and television talk shows.

It reflects a new era in Wisconsin government and new challenges for the news media and for citizens.

Matt Pommer worked as reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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