Reporters run risks believing politicians will stick to the script
As I listened in late January to television’s talking heads announce with complete confidence what President Barack Obama would say in his State of the Union message several hours later, I had to suppress a smile remembering some pre-speech releases that didn’t go as planned.
Reporters forecasting Obama’s speech knew they were on solid ground, with advance copies of his address in hand, and the assurance that — barring an unexpected announcement that World War III had begun — the talk would follow the outlines they had been given. They knew the minority Republican Party needed time to draft “instantaneous” replies and TV and radio personalities had to be sure they didn’t misquote the president in their analyses immediately following his speech.
But lesser political figures don’t always follow their advance copies. As a political reporter of many years’ standing, I learned early that a press advance sometimes bears little resemblance to what a politician actually says on the podium.
In the mid-1950s, I learned a lesson about using a politician’s pre-speech handout, and I was never able to forget it.
I was a neophyte at politics, sent to Denver to cover a speech by the late Sen. Albert Gore Sr., of Tennessee, father of the man who would become vice president under President Bill Clinton. Gore, Sr., was then a prominent senator and chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Roads. As co-author of the Interstate Highway System bill, he was considered the father of that system.
I got the assignment in Denver because Gore’s speech was being given at a dinner sponsored by the Jane Jefferson Club, a women’s political group that Daily Sentinel Publishers Walter and Preston Walker both supported.
That afternoon, Gore held a press conference, which I attended along with members of the Denver media, including television and radio. An aide handed out advance copies of what Gore expected to say that night, with a 7 p.m. release date. It was a pretty routine discussion of the Interstate Highway System.
I suppose I wanted to say I had participated in the news conference, because I asked Gore about the proposed Interstate 70 route through western Colorado and Grand Junction. There had been strong rumors to that effect, but the confirmation by the interstate bill’s co-author gave truth to the rumors.
The story was too late for that day’s Sentinel, so I filed it away in my mind for a sentence or two in the next afternoon’s edition, to be used along with what Gore was expected to say that evening.
I got to the hotel where the event was to take place a bit after 7 p.m. and found The Denver Post’s early evening edition just being distributed, with the Gore speech as the top story. The information was directly from the advance copies handed out to the press.
However, when Gore got up to speak, he had an entirely different speech — one that stressed the role that I-70 route would play in western Colorado. I was seated near the entrance to the banquet hall, and I glanced out the door to see the Post reporter pacing up and down. He looked pretty unhappy to me.
A similar experience several years later convinced me that politicians are not to be trusted with news releases.
When then-Sen. John F. Kennedy was in Grand Junction in the fall of 1959, coincidentally speaking once more at a Jane Jefferson event, his aide handed out pre-speech releases to the press, with, as I recall, a 7 p.m. release date. The major thrust of that release was the role that desalinated seawater would play in the future of the United States.
However, again there was a late-afternoon press conference, and inland Colorado reporters neither knew nor cared about desalinated seawater. I think it was a television reporter who brought up the arid West and its freshwater problems.
When Kennedy got up to speak, desalinated water had been scrapped from his agenda, and the problems of the water-scarce Western states had taken its place. As I recall, The Associated Press had asked for the advance copy of the speech and had sent all the details about desalinated water on its wires shortly after the approved release date. There was a later corrected AP story, in which desalinated water wasn’t mentioned.
I was more fortunate in a 1984 interview with Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, when he announced he would seek the presidency. I had been sent to Washington to get background on his campaign organization and was returning on the plane with him to Denver for his formal announcement. As a presidential aspirant, he was scheduled to address a Denver group the following morning, and Cox Enterprises, which then owned The Daily Sentinel, wanted a story. My interview took place on the plane, where Hart told me what he planned to say the next day.
The Sentinel was into the computer age by that time, and I sent the story on my little portable about 5 a.m. (8 a.m. on the East Coast) then waited fearfully to learn what Hart actually said. As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry. The run-of-the-mill information Hart had given me en route to Denver was, in general, what he had to say in his speech that morning.
Mary Louise Giblin Henderson is a former political reporter for The Daily Sentinel who now lives in California.