Will conflict with DFL House wake up the Capitol press corps?
A recent dust-up between the Capitol press corps and House DFL leadership exposes a much larger trend of complacency and incuriosity of the media covering the governor and legislature in Minnesota. Perhaps this week’s incident will awaken the media from their slumber and rekindle some journalistic integrity.
During a February 9, 2023 press conference on the free school lunch bill, House DFL leaders had trouble explaining to the media which students would be eligible for free lunches and how the state plan would work with current federal spending. After ten minutes of Q&A, DFL staff announced they would take only one more question. Reporter Peter Callaghan of MinnPost objected saying, “No, we can take several more questions, we’re trying to understand this bill.”
What happened next is chronicled in a remarkable letter sent to the DFL House Caucus signed by almost every media outlet. According to the letter, after the press conference, DFL communications staffer Matt Roznowski “upbraided Mr. Callaghan for his comment that the questions should continue and threatened to call his editor.” They subsequently removed Callaghan from the press list, reported him to the House human resources office for harassment and notified Capitol Security about his behavior.
The letter from media outlets to the DFL continued:
The media do not assemble at press conferences as passive recipients of prepared remarks. Rather, press conferences are participatory events, designed to be interactive. Uncomfortable comments and questions can and should be made…
Actually, since Gov. Tim Pawlenty left office in January 2011, that’s precisely how the Capitol press corps has behaved. They assemble at press conferences and dutifully report everything Gov. Walz and before him Gov. Dayton says in the manner and form dictated by the governor and his staff. Uncomfortable questions are nowhere to be found. Follow-up questions are a lost art. To be fair, there are occasional exceptions such as KSTP-TV’s Tom Hauser asking Walz uncomfortable questions during the pandemic. But as a rule, the press has lost their way.
Exhibit A is how Callaghan responded to this unprofessional and First-Amendment-chilling reaction by writing this glowing piece on the DFL school lunch plan.
Exhibit B is a press conference from 2004 that everyone in the media should be required to watch. Here is Gov. Tim Pawlenty rolling out his supplemental budget in a 50-minute press conference where he took 39 questions, including many challenging follow-ups. (click on the image below to access the video)
In one exchange, Pat Lopez from the Star Tribune asked Pawlenty about damage caused by budget cuts to HHS that included three follow ups.
In another, Mary Lahammer of TPT asked Pawlenty if changes to last year’s budget meant he had made mistakes. Has anyone ever asked Tim Walz if he made any mistakes during the riots or pandemic?
Another exchange featured Shawn Towle, who publishes an online newsletter and is a known DFLer. Towle challenged Pawlenty with a follow-up saying, “You said you are a problem solver, what’s your solution?”
Pawlenty even fielded a question about one of President George W. Bush’s reelection television commercials.
The press in 2004 sparred with Tim Pawlenty during every press conference. I picked this event at random but as a member of his staff, I can attest this was the norm. Pawlenty was very smart and highly skilled, and generally enjoyed the back-and-forth with the media.
When Mark Dayton became governor, he did not have the debate skills of his predecessor and the media mostly gave him a free pass. The best illustration of how the press treated Dayton came from Dayton himself. When asked why no one noticed he disappeared for weeks to the Mayo Clinic in November 2018, he said it was due to “to a lack of probing interest” on behalf of reporters. That about sums it up.
Reporters in St. Paul now sit passively as Gov. Tim Walz speaks loud and fast during press conferences, never daring to ask a follow-up question. In a recent press event Walz was asked about research from American Experiment about the number of new state employees hired in his state budget. Walz first tried to avoid answering by dismissing American Experiment as the source of the data. He then denied adding thousands of new state employees in his budget proposal by saying the cost of government today is the same as it was in 2002. Walz talked fast, talked loud, talked with assurance and confidence, so the reporters just backed off. No follow-up.
Getting back to this week’s drama, this isn’t the first time DFL staffer Matt Rosnowski has been caught berating reporters and staff at the Capitol. In 2019 he sent a threatening email to someone on my staff at the Senate Republican Caucus that ended with what turned out to be a very insincere apology:
I apologize for sending you this email. My combative and inflammatory tone was completely inappropriate and totally uncalled for. There is no excuse for it. I’m sorry. I will learn from this experience and do better in the future.
Matt didn’t do better, and this continues to be a problem for the House DFL Caucus. But the bigger problem is the lack of curiosity and tenacity of the Minnesota Capitol press corps.