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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Wilson's Brilliant Strategy to Fill the News Void

January 08, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It's a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. You got it?

--Skip, the manager in the movie "Bull Durham"

Flack (origin unknown): Press agent.

--Webster's

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Political flackery is a simple game, really. You create a message. You pitch the message into a news void. You hit the newspapers.

Gov. Pete Wilson's got it down.

His flack's got it. Does he ever. The flack is Sean Walsh--press secretary, deputy chief of staff and one of those anonymous "senior administration officials" you've probably seen quoted in recent days.

There's no mystery here. Newspapers must fill their pages, regardless of whether it's a "heavy" or a "slow" news day.

You conspiracy buffs who fret about some "liberal news media" plot to keep conservative ideas out of the papers, open your eyes.

The Republican governor has been all over the front pages of California's newspapers since Saturday, when he began "strategically leaking" details of the State of the State speech he ultimately delivered Wednesday. He has been on Page 1 of The Times four of the last six days; the other two days he has led Page 3.

Reporters and their editors are not interested in promoting ideology, Wilson's or anybody's. They're interested in getting good stories, or at least the best they can find. Important, informative, interesting stories, whether or not ideological. Every day.

That's just elementary Journalism 1A. And nobody outside a newsroom seems to understand it better than this governor and his flack, Wilson and Walsh.

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Politicians of both parties have marveled at Wilson's great news "play" in recent days. Some reporters, to be candid, have felt somewhat "used." But the exhilaration of seeing your story land on Page 1 does wonders to assuage any reporter's resentment.

Besides, an element of both Journalism 1A and Flackery 1A is that often there is a mutual interest at play. A flack wants his boss' message out; newspapers need to fill pages. And filling pages is traditionally tough over a holiday weekend, especially between New Year's Day and when government goes back to work on Monday. There's only one day that you can load up pages with Rose Parade photos.

Wilson and Walsh took advantage of this by working through the weekend and, in effect, forcing Capitol reporters to work, as well.

But first they created a message: Wilson's an activist governor, still very relevant and hardly a lame duck. He's going out strong, using the state's robust economy that he helped create to make long-term investments for the 21st century. Sort of like that last great builder, Pat Brown.

Only you'll never hear Brown's name mentioned. He was a Democrat.

The pitching began with pre-Christmas interviews. Wilson promoted his message without offering details of the upcoming speech. These stories, mostly assessing Wilson's upbeat mood and 1997 successes, received prominent play in newspapers.

For details, Walsh devised a series of "strategic leaks" to fill the holiday news void. He didn't worry about "cannibalizing" the speech because the details couldn't all be crammed into one address anyway. This plate was too full--schools, water, children, the aged--to be digested in one gulp. It needed to be spoon-fed in nibbles. There was a hiccup, however, when Times editors moved the speech story off Page 1, regarding too much of the "news" as stale.

One beauty of the leaks is that they didn't go to just one or two individual reporters. They were pitched to every Capitol correspondent and therefore were competitive. They also hit every daily newspaper, through the wire services if not their own Capitol correspondent.

Adopting the Washington system, Walsh--a former White House press aide--invited in reporters to be briefed by anonymous "senior officials." By using unnamed sources, the flack assured that his boss got full credit in readers' minds for each proposal. There'd be no sharing with any agency head or other political appointee.

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Walsh is a relative kid at 34, but a master at his craft. A product of the San Fernando Valley and UCLA, and a lifelong political junkie, Walsh interned for George Bush when he was vice president and followed him into the White House.

He's 6 feet, 3 inches and a former jock. One reason he and Wilson get along, the flack says, is they both love contact sports.

"The governor plays by the rule that if they poke you in the eye, you smash them in the head with a 2-by-4," Walsh says.

That's also part of the governor's message for any legislator who might think he's a lame duck.

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