Sen. Al Franken clawed his way into office in the most high-profile of ways, ekeing out a victory over incumbent Norm Coleman in a recount covered closely by the national media.
Since then, he has disappeared. By design, too: The senator claims to “focus” on home-state media outlets, quite often to the exclusion of organizations that reach a wider audience across the country. These home-state media-relations preferences are no secret here in Washington, where every reporter doubles as a media critic.
The Franken media strategy has silenced enough reporters by now to invite formatted scrutiny. Here goes.
Kevin Diaz, Washington reporter, Star Tribune
“He provides us very good access. If someone from my paper needs to talk to Al Franken, they can get him on the phone pretty quickly,” says Diaz. And Franken, it turns out, does things that journalists can’t even manage: “He respects deadlines.”
Late last year, Star Tribune reporter Jeremy Herb was interviewing Franken near the Senate floor. Just then, says Herb, “a couple or three reporters” advanced on the scene. “He finished the sentence and ended the interview.”
American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman J. Ornstein helped Franken strategize his splashdown in Washington. As Caesar would say, that strategy was divisa in partes tres: “Become a genuine workhorse, avoid the spotlight, get your colleagues saying both publicly and privately that you are a smart and serious person.”
Does that mean stiffing national media? “Probably by extension, that means avoiding a lot of national media — Al doesn’t need to get name recognition or attention.”
More: “I do expect that gradually ... in the model of [Bill] Bradley and [Hillary Rodham] Clinton, he will emerge more as a national spokesperson and do things like the ‘NewsHour’ and the Sunday shows. But I also think, like Bradley and Clinton, he will not become a media hog.”
If he does, Ornstein will hear from at least one Minnesota scribe: Diaz once told Ornstein he feared that Franken would give in-state media merely the “crumbs.” Ornstein shot back, in Diaz’s recollection: “He said to me, ‘You know, Kev, that’s not going to happen. And if it does, you call me.’ ” At least someone around here is on a nickname basis with Norman J. Ornstein.
Kevin Diaz, Washington reporter, Star Tribune
Access is great and all, but there’s an underside. “If anything, I feel more of a responsibility to be on my toes.” Reporters already carry the public trust between their shoulders. Need they more burden?
The Tone in Washington
Last month in downtown Washington, I run into Franken at an event. He’s early. He’s hovering in a lobby, chatting with people. I make up some questions and approach.
Before I can even finish saying “Washington Po,” in steps some guy: I’m sorry.. . .
That was Franken’s legislative director, Ben Olinsky. “You’ve got to go through the press team,” said Olinsky. Franken himself offered an explainer: “I just focus on Minnesota press.”
I tried to point out that talking with me couldn’t possibly blur his focus on Minnesota press, considering that he was standing around doing nothing at that very moment. But I was too steamed to articulate complex thoughts. Then I heard this: “We’re not trying to be difficult.”
“OK,” I replied, “but it is difficult,” in reference to the “policy.” At that point we walked away, all of us feeling like jerks, I hope.
The former Minnesota governor, to be sure, has done plenty to cement his tenure in this category. Yet his jones for national media and distaste for in-state media made him the anti-Franken. Diaz recalls a publicity-rich Ventura visit to New York in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. He and other home-state reporters had no chance. “We were literally left sucking the exhaust of Jesse Ventura’s SUV,” he recalls.
The American Sunday
From the senator’s press operation: “While Sen. Franken has been invited on Sunday shows, he hasn’t yet appeared because he’s focusing his attention on Minnesota press and is almost always in the state on the weekends.”
The Constitution of the United States of America
Climb this logic tree: Franken championed the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, the woman who alleged she was gang-raped while working for defense contractor Halliburton/KBR in Iraq. Jones, though, found her remedy avenues limited, for she had signed an employment contract waiving her right to a jury trial — that is, a mandatory arbitration clause. Franken won passage of an amendment to stop the government from dealing with defense contractors that require arbitration in cases of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination.
So Franken stands for constitutional rights. An important constitutional right is due process, the ability of people to appeal for justice.
Yet Franken’s office appears to have no appeal mechanism for its media policy, insisting that it handles “each press request on a case-by-case basis.”
A Minnesota Media Outlet!
“No, we’ve never had particularly good access to Al Franken,” says Kevin Hoffman, editor of City Pages, an alternative weekly based in Minneapolis. “Of course, that might have something to do with this shot we took at him early in his campaign.”
Franken’s Poor Media Shop
It’s a meta world for the Franken flackery: Not only do they have to handle inquiries about the usual senatorial grind, but they’ve got to explain Franken’s policy on the media to the media. For the purposes of this blog post alone, I pursued press secretary Ed Shelleby like gum on shoe.
The office generated this statement, which people probably had to edit and vet:
“Senator Franken’s primary focus is on his Minnesota constituents and consequently he talks most frequently with the Minnesota media. He does do interviews with national media on occasion, usually when the topic is a policy area on which he has a particular focus or expertise and he believes his interview can contribute to the initiative’s success. While this means the Senator doesn’t do as much as on-the-fly reaction commentary as some national media would like, our office makes every effort to respond to all media requests we receive.”
And every policy has to have exceptions, right? And agreeing on the exceptions eats up taxpayer dollars: What deliberation trail preceded these national media Franken outliers on technology, service dogs for veterans, Net neutrality and bullying.?
The People of the State of Minnesota
The Franken media policy tags the population of Minnesota as provincial, Internetless no-minds. Just corn dogs and community papers here, Mr. Senator!
Yet like people everywhere, Minnesotans care about the world beyond state boundaries, and they devour news from local and national sources. Twenty-five-year-old Amber Glawe, a St. Paul teacher, reads the Star Tribune and sometimes checks out a local TV Web site. She enjoyed “a lot of the New York Times before they put the paywall up.” “I would hope that he would be open to speak to major news outlets, but it is nice to have someone who wants to talk to our hometown news,” says Glawe.
Shirley Dahlgren, an 84-year-old resident of St. Paul, likes NPR, CNN, PBS, MSNBC plus two local TV stations and the Star Tribune. Says Dahlgren: “I don’t know why he wouldn’t speak to national media, but ... I can’t say.”
You tell him, Shirley.