The reporter for WDBJ in Virginia only had six minutes with Paul D. Ryan, the man who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency, so he didn’t want to waste any time.
Orlando Salinas decided to get Ryan to play “word association.” The candidate bravely complied. And reporter Salinas prompted him for an instant riff on, among other things: the battleground state of Virginia, coal, the United Nations, his last fight with his wife, President Obama, Chick-fil-A, and “the hardest thing you have ever had to do in your personal life, as a man, as a father.”
The people of the greater Roanoke area thereby learned that: Virginians have a big responsibility, Americans should burn more coal, the U.N. has too much power, Ryan can’t recall even a tiff with Janna, Obama likes to “attack and blame,” Chick-fil-A has good chicken, and the really tough things are “balancing your life, keeping your faith, keeping your family healthy and strong.”
It’s breezy interviews like this one, often with reporters just happy to have a brief glimpse of the Big Show, that bring national political candidates back to local TV stations, time and time and time again. Ryan and Mitt Romney rolled through half a dozen local interviews covering five states Thursday. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have logged many similar moments on the quick-n-lite circuit.
A telling episode or two—like reports Thursday by WDBJ’s Salinas and Shaun Boyd of the NBC affiliate in Denver—manage to expose the frothy and highly orchestrated results when national pols dance with the locals. Viewers in a dozen or so battleground states have the dubious distinction of getting to watch this stuff for months on end.
Boyd’s report Thursday on her quickie satellite interview with Romney began on a telling note. She told viewers that she got a “fair amount of material” in her five minutes with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee but that she got the interview only with a condition. “The one stipulation to the interview,” Boyd explained, “was that I not ask him about abortion or Todd Akin.” Akin, of course, is the Missouri Republican congressman who created a firestorm after saying a woman’s reproductive system shuts down in the case of a "legitimate rape" to prevent pregnancy.
In the world of pure journalism (in the limited venues where it’s still practiced), interviewers don’t agree to take certain material — particularly the hot topic of the moment — off the table, just as it is being set. Boyd told the New York Times that the question should have been fair game. But at least reporter Boyd told viewers about the ground rules. And that told the audience something about the campaign and the candidate who would make such demands.
Not that the Republicans are the only ones doing the ducking. Obama has gone months with almost no formal encounters with the White House press corps, a condition he only nominally corrected with a brief surprise appearance at a briefing this week.
In Roanoke, newsman Salinas also got a taste of how the Big Boys manage local newsies. Salinas noted (in an online report) how a Ryan aide recorded the session and told the reporter: “They budgeted five minutes for this, but we find that really isn't enough time. So we're going to give you six, but let's be nice about it. Six means six."
Yes, the handlers really say stuff like that. Translation: “You’re having your big moment to claim you got an ‘exclusive,’ small stuff. So don’t get uppity on the nice congressman.”
Salinas’ online report then described how he proposed his "word association" game to Ryan. “This is not a moment of 'gotcha,'” the reporter promised the man who wants to be No. 2 in the World. “It really is a moment of clarity and brevity for you."
The newsman certainly delivered on his promise. No gotchas. Not a one.