Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Former Ill. Gov. Edgar on Politicians Molding the Media, Blagojevich Retrial

Former Ill. Gov. Jim Edgar speaks to graduate journalism students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on May 4 about the relationship between politicians and the press, and about the odds that former governor Rod Blagojevich will be found guilty in his corruption retrial.

For those who like to play “what if,” imagine this scenario.

Jim Edgar, the Republican Illinois governor from 1991 to 1999, leaves office with a high approval rating. He’s generally well-respected by the media and the voting public. In 2003, U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald announces he’s not going to run again, which inspires President George Bush to call Edgar and ask him to run for the seat.

Edgar says yes. Despite running in a Blue state, because of his generally positive reputation as governor and center-leaning Republican, he wins the race in a landslide and becomes the next Illinois senator.

That’s not what happened. While Edgar left office with a 60 percent approval rating, and was asked by President Bush to go for the senate seat, Edgar declined.

Instead, Alan Keyes ran against Barack Obama. Keyes had extremely little credibility in Illinois, especially in Chicago, where he had adopted legal residence only just before the election. The race was no contest for Obama, who easily won with 70 percent of the vote. But being the presidential catapult the Illinois senate seat turned out to be, it’s obvious how different American politics could have been if Edgar decided to run.

“I remember a couple of times they tried to get me to run for the senate, and I decided against doing it, and some of the media guys from Chicago said ‘You’re right, we’re a lot nastier than we used to be,’” Edgar said to the small class of University of Illinois graduate journalism students in early May.

He’s now a distinguished fellow of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) at the U of I. The position affords him the opportunity to talk to journalism students about the power of media from a very different perspective – a politician dependent on the media to carry a message to the public.

“I’m not running for office, so I’m pretty candid these days,” he said.
Early in his campaign, Edgar tried increasing his media presence with press conferences about policy reform. However, government policy wasn’t exciting enough for the Illinois media to cover.

When he was running for governor, Edgar organized a press conference about his drug policy that was specially-made for maximum media coverage. It was organized at a Rotary club in downtown Chicago, at noon, close to the media hub of Illinois. Edgar didn’t usually prepare a speech beforehand, but wrote one for the special occasion.

“We had it all done right. So twelve o’clock comes, we have all the Rotarians come,” Edgar recalled. “And we had one news media person show up. One out of the entire state.”

That reporter was Tom Hardy from the Chicago Tribune, who hadn’t come there because of the unveiling of the drug policy.

“He just hadn’t covered me for a few weeks and wanted to see how I was doing,” Edgar said.

“He later became my press secretary,” he said. “He was a good guy.”

Edgar was leading in the polls at the time due to his popularity “down-state,” but the fate of that election ultimately rode on the Chicago suburbs electorate. As was the case in so many Illinois elections, the ‘burbs became the battleground, and so Edgar still needed coverage from the Chicago media.

He tried again and scheduled a press conference at more convenient time (a Saturday afternoon, when the television media was generally the hungriest for news) and a more convenient location (a scenic part of the Chicago River). The subject of the press conference: environmental policy.

“There’s the Chicago River, beautiful weather,” he said. “Nobody shows up. After a while, you think, hey, probably isn’t a good idea to keep talking about issues and putting out position papers and all that.”

Edgar changed tactics as Election Day drew near. The polls showed Edgar and the then-attorney general were nearly equal. It’s the story he most likes to tell young journalists: on the last weekend before the election, considered the biggest media day for political coverage, before the news media, Edgar held up a frozen waffle.

He claimed that that if his opponent wins the election, the waffle will become the state seal of Illinois. He said his opponent was a flip-flopper and waffled on the issues.

“And what happened that evening? The story about me holding up that waffle. Next day in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, was me holding up that waffle,” Edgar said.

“Now that was pretty hokey,” the former governor conceded. “My wife joked about it, but that got you coverage.”

Media "didn't have a clue"

Even when Edgar won the election and become governor, it was only the beginning of a long battle to get the media’s attention, he said.

“We politicians always try to figure out how to manipulate you guys or how to get our message across.”

But the relationship between the governorship and the press was not always as one-sided. His office would give preferential treatment and exclusives to reporters who he felt offered fair coverage, Edgar said. But elected officials would also take note when newspaper editorial boards would take on an issue.

“Who wants to be an editorial writer? Who reads editorials? Well nobody, except politicians, and public officials. That’s a pretty good group to get to,” Edgar said.

“Editorials I don't think get you many votes on election day, but it sure scares politicians.”

He said former Governor George Ryan, who took office after the Edgar administration, took up the cause of abolishing the death penalty after the Tribune ran an editorial condemning the executions. In 2005, Ryan was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. One year later, he was convicted of selling truck licenses for bribes and steering lucrative state contracts to cronies.

Ill. Gov. George Ryan at the Illinois State Fair in 2002.
Photo by Randy von Liski, on Flickr.
In February, while serving time in a Terre Haute, Ind. penitentiary for his crimes, Ryan was again nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, by U of I law Professor Francis A. Boyle.

“And the media keeps that issue in front of the legislature and in front of the public. By keeping it in front of the public, the legislature knew they couldn’t ignore it. That’s one of the powers you have in the media after the election.”

“I had a group of down-state publishers and they asked me to come and talk to them and I did, and they said ‘What’s going to be the issue before the legislature this year?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, you haven't told us yet.’”

It’s particularly difficult for politicians to gain traction on controversial issues when the media ignores the issue, Edgar said.

The elder statesman characterized the Springfield press corps as competent during his office, he recalled. But he said television media and the press elsewhere in the state had a high turnover rate, which meant those reporters often times didn’t have the skill to cultivate important stories.

“The outlying press corps in Illinois, they didn’t have a clue. Downstate you care more about state government, but many of them were brand new. Every time I’d go to the Quad Cities or Rockford, I’d meet new people,” Edgar said.

“The pay is so little, people just pass through. They weren’t there a long time to get the continuity. You have a press corps that has some longevity, and they heard this story before. They know when they’re getting snowed.”

The Chicago press had some of the most experienced reporters, Edgar said, but they weren’t concerned with politics outside of Chicago.

“The Chicago press corps, I liked them, but they didn’t have a clue,” he said. “They’d cover me in Chicago, but it was all how it would help city hall. State government does not get the coverage that it used to.”

“The Chicago press corps did not understand about the issues in Springfield. They did not care about the issues in Springfield. They only cared if I was in a fight with Mayor Daley.”

With Blago, hobbled media "got sloppy," left open opportunity for corruption

Edgar said he thinks that inattention in the press corps, especially the Chicago press corps, allowed the Rod Blagojevich scandal to fester. May 26, the former, twice-elected governor took the stand during his corruption retrial to answer questions about whether he tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat that Obama vacated.

“The media got a little sloppy, too,” Edgar said. “Particularly the Chicago media.”

Part of the impetus for politicians to stay clean is a competent press, which operates as a balance for power-hungry politicians, Edgar said. He said that responsibility includes more than making Woodward-and-Burnstein-caliber exposés, but explaining the mundane, and sometimes complicated, duties of the Illinois legislature.

The Department of Justice's booking photo of Blagojevich,
after he was arrested in 2008 at his Chicago home.

Of Blagojevich, Edgar said he was confident that the jury would come up with a guilty verdict in the latest trial.

“I think there was a one in a million chance that the jury would find him innocent, and they had that the last time,” he said. “He’s still going to go to jail for perjury, and I know the judge [James Zagel]. He will send him for everything he can.”

If Blagojevich gets off with a hung jury or is found innocent, that could discourage young Illinoisans from pursuing a career in public service, Edgar said. He said that while Chicago does politics a little “rougher” than it’s done downstate, it had never been “that bad.”

“I got to tell you, even when I was out of office, I heard story and saw things that it was obvious,” Edgar said. “With this guy, everything was for sale. And that’s not the way it’s done.”

Edgar said that much had changed about the media since he left the governor’s mansion. While the media was preoccupied with sensationalism before, that obsession has increased in recent years, he said. Profits still guide the media.

“[Newspapers are] usually owned by someone who is concerned about the bottom line, not concerned about making a good newspaper. You look for sensationalism more than you look for factual.”

And yet, the need for facts is only increasing, he added.

“We more need the media today to provide information, because things are more complicated today than they were forty years ago.”