Any realistic account of what happened last week when Representative Nick Mattiello became Speaker of the House has to account for the actions of our state’s media. Our state’s political press played an essential part of making Mattiello Speaker. The reporters will complain this is unfair, but let’s look at the time line.
On Friday, March 21, — while FBI agents were still in Gordon Fox’s office — golocalprov was tweeting exactly the rumors that Mattiello wanted everyone hear: that he had control, that he had the votes, that resistance is futile. Immediately afterward, Kim Kalunian of WPRO radio followed, and Dan McGowan at WPRI, too. Could Mattiello have realistically asked for more? These reporters let everyone know that it was Mattiello’s office to lose. At that point, coverage like that is what his bluff needed most.
On Friday evening, Mattiello held a “caucus” to shore up his support and only about two dozen people showed, up, far short of the number necessary to win the Speaker’s gavel. So we went to bed and woke up on Saturday, March 22, and then look what happened. On Saturday, Mattiello was clearly losing, according to accounts I’ve heard and corroborated since. After some disarray on Friday, and Mattiello’s failure to show a clear majority on Friday night, what became Mike Marcello’s team had arranged a clear majority of the necessary votes.
But in the press, you had Channel 10 and Cranston Patch (or what’s left of it) reporting that Mattiello’s succession was a done deal. At the very least, this inaccurate reporting sowed confusion and at worst it actually interfered with the Marcello team being able to consolidate its gain. Apparently the confusion, plus a personal appeal from Paul Valletta, the firefighter’s union president, to the two Woonsocket representatives who are firefighters, started the erosion of Marcello’s support. Republicans Joe Trillo and Doreen Costa indicated that their caucus would weigh in, and would choose Mattiello, and they sped the erosion. But they were just trying to bet on the winners, since an hour before they had been supporting the other side.
Then on Sunday March 23, the next day, Kathy Gregg at the Providence Journal and Ian Donnis at RIPR buried Marcello’s team and that was pretty much that. As if what was won on Saturday couldn’t be lost on Sunday or Monday.
Randy Edgar made a little effort to report that it wasn’t a done deal on Sunday, but he was all alone so had no effect.
So what do we learn? The reporters named here will say that they had no choice but to report what was coming at them. Great, so political reportage necessarily resembles a mob? But not all reporters played along, as Randy Edgar and a few others showed. Even so, true or not, it is irrelevant to the point that the political press played a crucial role in making Nick Mattiello’s ascension to speaker possible. In their breathless chase of what’s happening right now right now right now, they amplified his claims to have the votes and seemed to ignore the possibility that anything else might happen. They served the powerful.
I hope the reporters whom I count among my friends will eventually forgive me for saying so, but in many ways the state’s political press did Nick Mattiello’s bidding, from the broadcast of his unsupported claims on Friday to this curious post on Monday where WPRI’s Ted Nesi said Mattiello won’t rock the boat and that his fervent embrace of every item of the Chamber of Commerce’s agenda constitutes being a “moderate.” (And, of course, since the Chamber’s agenda already ruled the House, Mattiello is unlikely to feel the boat needs rocking at all.) This kind of calming article was exactly what was needed to consolidate the Mattiello team’s votes, to prevent fear of a conservative takeover of the House. Which, of course, was precisely what was going on, as even that article makes clear.
I suppose it is possibly true that there is no other way to do political reporting except in a mob that provides support to those who already have power, but that seems a dubious proposition to me. Reporters have a responsibility to their readers, and a responsibility to the state they live in, and it seems to me that the responsibility is an individual sort. Actions have consequences and none of us are free from the moral dimension of those actions. There will likely be another election for Speaker after this fall’s elections, and will we see the same presumptions, the same blind repetition of idle boasts, the same rush? We will see.