Jesse Ventura is more than just a governor, potential presidential candidate and the most outspoken politician on the planet. He's also a media magnet with a small army of national journalists panting after him.
What other elected leader would spend 15 minutes babbling with CNBC's Chris Matthews about why he thinks President Kennedy was likely killed by the military-industrial complex?
And what other governor would keep a scheduled date on "Meet the Press" right after touching off an uproar with a Playboy interview in which he disparaged organized religion as a "sham" for "weak-minded people"?
"Many politicians would have canceled, but he didn't," says "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert. "He answered every question, and he did it in an open way. He didn't back off or retract anything. . . . He doesn't duck. He doesn't bob and weave. He doesn't push the spin button."
After a publicity blitz last week that ricocheted from the cover of Newsweek and an appearance at Harvard to chats with David Letterman and Barbara Walters, Jesse the Body is clearly the hottest programming commodity around.
The Minnesota governor and the media are made for each other. They are addicted to celebrity and controversy; he craves ink and air time. They turn the former wrestler into a national phenomenon; he boosts circulation and ratings. He's even got people buying Playboy for the articles.
Indeed, Ventura says he does five interviews a day and turns down three times as many requests. In recent weeks he's been on "Face the Nation," "Crossfire," "Good Morning America," "Late Edition" and "Fox News Sunday"--and "This Week" panelists Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts and George Will trekked to Minnesota for an interview that aired on the show yesterday. In August, Ventura said he was "tired" of being "a talking head for a presidential election" and would grant no more national interviews unless reporters wanted to talk about Minnesota issues. That lasted long.
As a former radio talk show host, Ventura knows how to deliver what producers want. On "Hardball," he accomplished the rare feat of interrupting Matthews while Matthews was in the midst of interrupting him.
"I say what I think, and I'm not afraid," Ventura declared.
Back in Minnesota, where he actually has to govern, it's a different story. Ventura threatened to cancel his subscription to the St. Paul Pioneer Press after the paper criticized his appearance as referee of a low-rent wrestling match. The governor fired back that the paper accepts ads for X-rated establishments and should be dubbed the Pioneer Porn.
Walker Lundy, the paper's editor, says Ventura has been "extremely selective with local reporters" since the legislature adjourned, and that "your only shot at getting comment from the governor is to ambush him at some event."
Lundy says he's "astonished" at the national media's fascination with Ventura, likening it to reporters always trailing the president in case of an assassination attempt. "You follow him around not because someone's going to take a shot at him, but because he's going to heave out one of these verbal bombshells that will be a heck of a story."
The latest bombshell may have backfired, as Ventura's home-state popularity plummeted 19 points after he dissed religion and downplayed the Tailhook scandal during the Playboy session. But an unrepentant Ventura told Russert: "You do an interview for Playboy, Playboy wants a provocative interview."
The backdrop for the Ventura blitz is the maneuvering for the Reform Party's presidential nomination (Ventura says he's not running but will certainly influence who gets the nod). In a larger sense, however, it may be fueled by the media's boredom with the rest of the 2000 campaign, recently pronounced a snooze by the New Yorker's Joe Klein. Perhaps that's why journalists have lavished attention on Warren Beatty, Donald Trump, even Cybill Shepherd for their ruminations about running for the White House.
"I have mixed feelings about Ventura, Trump, Beatty and all these characters because they're manipulating the media," says Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly. "I hesitate to give them a forum unless it's on a very specific issue." At the same time, says O'Reilly, who had Ventura on in July to talk about his Minnesota agenda, "he's very entertaining."
Footnote: Ventura may no longer have the limelight to himself. Trump has launched his own media campaign, and inevitably, the twice-divorced developer was asked if he'd ever committed adultery. "I'd have to get you a definition of adultery," he told the New York Post.
Hitting the Brakes
WTOP listeners were surprised recently to hear the voice of traffic reporter Lisa Baden on a lobbying group's ad.
Baden, who works for Metro Traffic and appears on WTOP, was fronting for an outfit called the Coalition for Better Mobility, which wants to do something about traffic problems. But it turns out the group is funded by the Greater Washington Board of Trade--as well as Marriott, AAA, Hecht's and The Washington Post Co.--and supports a laundry list of local construction projects.
Baden says she was approached by the Board of Trade and did the spot only with WTOP's permission. "I'm just a traffic reporter trying to do a good job," she says. "I don't want to wrinkle any papers or rock any boats of any kind. I'll go along with whatever WTOP is comfortable with."
WTOP Vice President Jim Farley says he's had "second thoughts" and is "sorry" he approved the commercial. He has now vetoed a second spot by Baden. "To avoid any possible taint, I had her voice pulled," Farley says. "She won't be doing it any more."
Guarding the Fortress
Salon.com, the online magazine that recently went public, kicked off a colorful ad campaign last week on MSNBC, CNBC, Fox and other networks.
At the last minute, though, CNN rejected the commercial, telling the Webzine that it is viewed as competition.
"They view us as a competing news source? All seven of our staff members in our news group?" says Salon Vice President Patrick Hurley. "We don't have a TV program or a network, so what's the competition?"
CNN spokesman Kerrin Roberts would say only that ads are reviewed "on a case-by-case basis" and that Salon is deemed competitive with CNN's Web site. The network also has turned down ads for the Wall Street Journal's Internet edition.
Sign of the Times
Financial news must be hotter than ever; the New York Times is hiring its first business and economics columnist for the op-ed page. Paul Krugman, an MIT professor and author, will begin ruminating for the Times in January.