Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Monopolizing J. B.

When I took my first journalism class at the UW, I was told a good reporter is someone who's inquisitive, tenacious and fearless. Apparently, the good folks in Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen's office tend to disagree.

I was one iota of self control from either blowing my top or bursting out laughing this afternoon after Van Hollen's scheduler, Dean Stensberg, yelled at me over the phone. No -- he didn't just yell at me over the phone. He specifically called me up to yell at me over the phone. It had all the potential to either make my day or send me into an apoplectic rage.

It is neither the first nor will it be the last time a government official gets short with me, but I will relate the tale anyway, because I think it speaks to the decaying transparency in our government.

At the very top of my stack of assignments for today was a pretty simple piece off the AP about the Top Ten Consumer Complaints list put together by the National Association of Attorneys General labelled, simply, "Find Out More." It looked like a big, fat, slow pitch over the plate, but I decided to make things tougher on myself and develop a theory to go with it -- namely, that the economy was to blame (Okay, blaming the economy is like shooting corn feed in a barrel, but the numbers add up. Debt collection becomes the number one complaint, investment issues appears out of nowhere and home construction complaints fall two slots? "It's the economy, stupid.")

The next step was simple: call Glen Lloyd, the Wisconsin Trade and Consumer Protection answer guru. Glen answered promptly -- I don't think he's ever taken even a lunch break -- but referred me to his boss the attorney general's office. He said he was willing to weigh in, but I might get better depth if I talked to an Attorney General's spokesman first.

I had a source to fall back on if needed, so I figured I'd shoot for an interview with Van Hollen himself rather than one of the spokesthings. I put in my call and got patiently in line, as the man had something of an eventful afternoon on his plate as it was.

While I was waiting for my call back, word came down that Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi ruled to allow Van Hollen to continue his lawsuit against the State Elections Board, in spite of the fact that his office is representing them in two other pending cases. Even though it seems counterintuitive, this is in fact allowed under state law. The attorney general's office features an entire cadre of lawyers, and by shifting them around, they can prevent any one from having a conflict of interest.

Not that Van Hollen's lawsuit makes a lick of sense, anyway. The Help America Vote Act took effect in 2006, the same year Van Hollen was elected as Wisconsin's AG. By the time he took office, HAVA had been in effect for a full year, and Wisconsin wasn't yet in compliance. He could have filed a lawsuit to force the issue then, when there was time for the case to run its course and the state elections board to sort their gremlins out.

Instead, the election is 40 days away and one out of every five names the SEB feeds through its machine comes back as inelligible. Van Hollen wants to add a component to the well-oiled machine that is the Wisconsin election process, and he wants to do it by beating it with a wrench until sparks fly out.

Van Hollen himself would take issue with my calling it a well-oiled machine. He's convinced there are felons and rapists sitting in seedy bars RIGHT NOW laying their plans to vote eight times in each district between here and Green Bay. He certainly doesn't seem to grasp that criminals have more ambitious plans than sneaking an extra vote in for their favorite candidate (if they're even aware there's an election), and citizens inclined to vote value the right too much to abuse it.

In a state with the motto of "Forward," having a system that does as little as possible to hinder a motivated citizen from voting is something we ought to be proud of. And humorously enough, days after Van Hollen announced his lawsuit to "fix" our system, the nonpartisan citizens' rights group Common Cause released a study saying Wisconsin has one of the most un-broken systems in the country.

Keep in mind, none of this is what motivated me to do what I did this afternoon. I saw the story about the results from the lawsuit hearing, and my reporter's curiosity (and a lazy desire to have one fewer call to make during the workday tomorrow) piqued. I decided to get some reaction from Van Hollen on the results of the hearing.

When I got him on the phone this afternoon, I moved through the interview quickly. Five minutes, and I had the fluff piece in the bag. So I asked him, politely, if he had time to fill me in on the latest with the elections board lawsuit, and he agreed, politely. I learned a lot I wouldn't have learned otherwise, and in another five minutes, I had a much better grasp on the whole story than I had previously.

Was it fair to ask him to react to the Common Cause report? I think so. It's not like I'm going to hurt the attorney general's feelings by calling into question his policy decisions. The guy used to eat defense attorneys for breakfast, for Chrissake, and it's a valid point of concern for any Wisconsin citizen.

Along those same lines, I was also apparently the first person to broach the subject with Van Hollen. He said he hadn't seen the study, so I filled him in and got a pretty standard response.

"Wisconsin's probably the easiest state to vote in in the nation," Van Hollen said, "and if that's what their standard is, it probably is number one. If their standard is it has the most accurate voting process and the least rife with fraud, we would probably be on the other end of that list."

I made to push the point further, to get beyond the talking point, when the aforementioned scheduler, Dean Stensberg, cut in abruptly on the line, saying they had to "move him along here."

No surprise there. Van Hollen was dealing with a holding pattern of other reporters who wanted to get some comment on the day's proceedings, and he clearly wasn't happy with the direction the conversation had turned. I was a little miffed when I hung up the headphones, but Stensberg's response wasn't anythiong out of the ordinary.

I got up, stretched, and walked across the room to cross the story off the white board. The phone rang. I grabbed it at the anchor desk, away from my notepad unfortunately, because I wish I could have taken better notes.

It was Stensberg again, and he proceeded to berate me for the next five minutes. I managed to jot a couple of notes, but the exchange that sticks out the most clearly in my mind was right off the bat.

"I don't know how long you've been doing this," Stensberg fumed, "but--"

I cut him off, expecting him to accuse me of 'ambushing' Van Hollen. "Doing what?"

"I don't know how long you've been in radio," he continued, clearly picking his words, "but we have a way we do things here."

He began to lecture me on the gross injustice just committed -- "I got him on the phone for you to interview on one subject, and come back to find you talking about something completely different." -- and I bit back a number of retorts that quickly flashed from my gut to my mouth.

While blurting out "I don't know how long you've had that rack of flag lapel pins crammed up your ass, but I've been in radio long enough to know a prick when I deal with one" is cathartic later on at the bar, it would not have helped my situation at the time.

I can understand the scheduling concerns Stensberg has to deal with, but he attacked me like I was monopolizing Van Hollen's time. When I stopped the recording, the final timecode read 12:28, part of which was the initial set up where I was on the line with Stensberg. If that was an inappropriate amount of time to go through what's clearly a complicated issue, they ought to rethink the way they deal with the press.

So rather, what got Stensberg's goat was something much more insidious, something that I as a member of the ruthless media ought never have dared to do: I asked a hard question.

We have a way we do things here? You mean, like, you screen the questions before they get to the attorney general so there aren't any unpleasant surprises? That must be "that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found" the UW Board of Regents was so keen on that made it onto that plaque, right?

None of this surprised me, none of it is anything I haven't dealt with from politicians and their cronies before. I've been working as a reporter for over three years now, been in radio for six. But if there ever comes a day when this kind of thing doesn't enrage me, I'll know I've been broken.

Not only was Stensberg's tirade unwarranted and unprofessional, it was un-American. If the message I was supposed to take away from the phone call was "fall in line," my response is "learn your place." The voters elected Van Hollen into office (myself among them -- I liked what he wanted to do with the state's crime lab, and I'm pleased with the results so far), the taxpayers pay Stensberg's salary, and their professional responsibility ought to come with a dutiful sense of humility.

You serve the public, at the whim of the public, and when the public has some pretty serious questions about some pretty pivotal issues, you'd best be prepared to answer them.


Anonymous said...

Dusty, I always enjoy reading these pieces... It gives me a lot of respect for what you cats do over in the newsroom!

Anonymous said...

Next time something like this happens, tell them you're recording it - record it, or if they object, remind them that you ARE a reporter, and that what they say to you is implicitly ON the record. I'll run it. I love to burn bridges with politicians.


Emily said...

I don't know how he thought it would be a good idea to call you back and chew you out--any reporter worth half their salt would obviously then mention it publicly (as you've done here), and it never ends up making the Stensberg party look good.

Well done. Don't let 'em break you!

Jessica said...

Something came to mind with this post (other than, WTF is wrong with this guy and you totally should have said the flag-lapel thing), was a line from the 80s classic The Breakfast Club. Hold on, I'll google it. I know reporters are sticklers for accurasy.

Here it is.

Andrew Clark: What do you need a fake I.D. for?
Brian Johnson: So I can vote!

Pretty ridculous. Almost like the rapists and drug lords voting for their favorite candidate over and over again. I have a friend who did some serious drugs in college, and in 2000, she didn't even know there was an election going on.