Over the course of nearly an hour-long talk given by Governor Gina Raimondo at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, you might’ve assumed that the headlines coming out it would be the moment where she questioned whether President Donald Trump was fit to serve as President of the United States, considering Trump’s effect on Rhode Island’s Republican Party was the question of the day this Sunday in The Providence Journal.
You might have assumed that the right wing media would seize on her comments about women in politics and business, when she put it that women were a rarity in the corridors of power and that that needed to be fixed.
Perhaps, it would’ve been obvious that the Governor was influenced by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, when she echoed the comments on the dangers artificial intelligence that he gave to the National Governors Association this July. Or when she expressed worry that foreign governments felt the need to negotiate directly with individual states and sidestep the federal government, as illustrated in the so-called “Doughnut Strategy” of Canada.
But instead, it was a particular two minutes of the talk (starting 32:30) that earned the ire of Rhode Island’s media, when the Watson Institute’s Director Ed Steinfield asked about media:
Steinfeld: We’ve had a number of speakers here in recent weeks… Jeff Goldberg from the Atlantic talked about the kind of dynamic that’s developed between the media and politicians in the Trump era. You know, lots of hyperbole and everything else and distraction from issues and talking about substance. So, to what extent is that real, and if it is real, how do you deal with it?
Gina Raimondo: Uh, I think it’s very real and I’d be lying if I told you I’d figured it out. We’re kind of figuring it out real-time. [pause] It’s almost impossible to get ‘the news’ out if you will. And, you know, we’re struggling, even in the short time I’ve been in government [unintelligible] I’ve been in public life for six years. Six years ago, when I started this, our local paper, The Providence Journal, was something that many or most Rhode Islanders read. Certainly all influencers read, uh, that’s, it’s a shadow of its former self and not true… I think they’re down to 16 reporters. So you can’t rely on that. Uh… news, broadcast news, has become… almost like… talk radio… you know, I do this one-on-one thing with, uh, live T.V. and it started out, even when I started two years ago it was a nice back-and-forth and now they call it ‘going one-on-one with the Governor.’ Like it’s all a fight, you know… motif. So we’re constantly trying to figure it out, we’re relying a lot more on social media, I’m investing a lot in building my Facebook presence. We find that people trust Facebook, people trust their friends, and it’s the only place where they’ll really go and sort of hang out long enough to, you know, engage with the topic. And it has to be much more hyper-local. That’s also the only way that we’re learning, like super, like I’m actually spending a lot more time with local, hyper-, micro-local media in Rhode Island, um, because people do read that. But it’s a challenge, it’s a huge challenge. And we’re all figuring it out as we go.
To me, this read like the sort of appraisal of local media you might find in… well, local media (albeit in the unfocused way people talk verbally). RIPR has reported on the slashed staffing at The Journal, while WPRI has long taken note of its declining print circulation. Rhode Island’s paper of record covered the fears of interference at WJAR by its owner Sinclair Broadcasting Group.
Substantively, Raimondo’s answer was about what every public relations and communications professional worth their salt frets about: how do you reach the public in an era of shrinking legacy news, social media, and a general lack of trust in media? How do you get your message across?
That was not how her remarks were taken in the press. WPRO declared that she “lashed out” at WJAR, a phrase which that station parroted. In ever-shifting headlines, RIPR said she “criticized” or “lambaste[d]” local media. The Associated Press wrote that she “slammed” the venerable media institutions of the state. One would think reporters spent the day leaping for cover given how many articles described her “taking aim” at the press.
In the ensuing firestorm, the governor quickly (and wisely) apologized, and the headlines have since been updated.
But the media’s response to Raimondo’s remarks inadvertently reinforced the premise of Steinfeld’s question: that hyperbole has overtaken discussions substance and policy. The over-the-top headlines recalled the way the Huffington Post routinely used to cover Jon Stewart: that he “eviscerated” whoever or whatever he targeted. Meanwhile, the Governor’s remarks on news stories that are very much in the public eye fell by the wayside. To their credit, alone among media outlets, WPRO covered the full breadth of what Raimondo said, while the rest of Rhode Island’s media focused only on themselves.
There are good reasons for the media to be critical of the Raimondo administration. The disasters of UHIP and DCYF were preventable (indeed, critics were worried about the changes Raimondo was making to those systems at the time they were made). The administration’s poor transparency routinely has journalists grumbling about having to file Freedom of Information Act requests. Perhaps if the latter situation didn’t exist, the media would’ve been more predisposed to listen to the governor’s evaluation of them.
And the reality is that the governor’s evaluation, even if she’s apologized for making it, is mostly accurate.
If you want to communicate to the state, you cannot rely solely on The Journal and WJAR, as in years past. Our local reporters are underpaid, overworked, and while they produce great stories almost daily they are distrusted and criticized by the public at large. Many media outlets, both the old and the new, uncritically print press releases. Lack of audience engagement with media is a problem, and manipulation of web traffic statistics makes claims of reach suspect. The Chafee administration was routinely criticized for its inability to grasp communications. Now the Raimondo administration is criticized for the opposite.
By summing up the media landscape, Raimondo made a gaffe. And a gaffe, in Michael Kinsley’s immortal formulation “is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” After Wednesday, I think Rhode Island’s politicians have good reason to shy away from speaking obvious truths.
They might get slammed.