Commentary: Memo to Gov. Raimondo On RI Media

Oct 6, 2017

In the famous words of an old friend and colleague Charlie Bakst (the ProJo’s longtime political columnist, when the state’s largest newspaper had such a position), I’m getting cranky.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo went off on the local media at a Brown forum this week. Among her complaints: the Providence Journal is no longer what it once was, television news has become more sensational and talk radio is, well, silly (those were not her exact words, but we get her drift). Sam Howard at RIFuture.org, and my friend and partner in crime here at RIPR Ian Donnis, have both written thoughtful things about this and I commend them.

Alan Rosenberg, ProJo executive editor, skewered Raimondo, referencing a Political Scene piece written by State House veteran Kathy Gregg that pointed out that the state spends more than $5 million on taxpayer-paid flacks to help the governor get her message out.  Gregg’s piece wasn’t news, but what she did was put in one easily digestible piece just how much taxpayers spend for this and how much individual P.R. flacks are paid.

Raimondo was correct about the diminished clout and relevance of the ProJo. If you listen over a beer to those who still work there, God bless them, they say things much like the governor about their employer.

And it is true that too many still left at the ProJo have become too thin-skinned. Back in the day, reporters and editors just let petty criticisms roll off like water on a duck. Talk radio fools often took silly aim at ProJo reporters. Most of us just laughed it off as both occupational hazard and red badge of courage.

Other media outlets have been strapped, too, as profit-mongering owners squeeze news gathering more and more. So Raimondo wasn’t wrong. She apologized a few hours after the story broke, likely out of fear that she had ruffled enough feathers.

But there are some things that she and her well-paid flacks should try to understand. The gap between what veteran reporters get paid and what her young flacks are earning has never been wider. ProJo reporters haven’t had raises in like forever. Other journalists in this market aren’t getting rich.

Here’s where the Gregg polscene piece comes in. How do you think people who have been reporters in this market for years like having a kid flack - being paid much, much more than you - treating you like an idiot or political prop? Some of Raimondo’s flacks are very good. Some aren’t. Some of them couldn’t get a reporter an interview with their boss if you paid them. Others can’t write in anything other than in Orwellian claptrap better suited to ad copy than anything having to do with news.

Getting your message out, governor,  is a two-way street. As is the case with most pols, she wants that to be a one-way street. Today was a fine example of a failure in her public relations sense. The public learned that state government is launching an early-retirement program for long-term state employees because reporters, including Ms. Gregg and yours truly, got the news slipped to them by sources.

There was no news release by state government. Raimondo should know better than this. Mike DiBiase knows better too. He’s a smart guy who is a state government veteran and someone who also had a fine private sector career. I do understand that it is Friday on a holiday weekend and that state government folks like to leave early. So do we.

Yet, these people expect the media to cover manufactured events that bear no resemblance to news, such as those ceremonial bill signings and other nonsense that they think will make them look good to an increasingly skeptical public.

I just bumped into a veteran (and very good) ProJo reporter in downtown Providence. He was coming back from an assignment in court after 4 p.m. on a Friday. We chatted briefly and he expressed sentiments similar to what I am saying. He joked that when it comes to understanding the local media, the governor too often is, “living in Gina’s bubble.”

What think governor?