Sam Brownback and his staff finally cried uncle:
“My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.
“I enjoyed speaking to the more than 100 students who participated in the Youth in Government Program at the Kansas Capitol. They are our future.
“I also want to thank the thousands of Kansas educators who remind us daily of our liberties, as well as the values of civility and decorum.
“Again, I apologize for our over-reaction.”
What’s not here is any clear acknowledgement that it’s deeply wrong for government employees to be trying to control what citizens say about their boss. It’s understandable, though, that the Brownback staff could forget that, since they engage in that kind of bullying with the Kansas press all the time. I managed the campaign against Brownback in 2010, and it was disgusting how most–not all, but most–of the Kansas press were regularly stonewalled or cowed in to submission by the Brownback staff. A few reporters were independent and didn’t allow themselves to be conned or intimidated. Some were easily duped. But many others allowed the Brownback staff to intimidate their newspaper, radio or television station in to not running damaging stories about Brownback, or sugar-coating what they did run. After all, he was going to be governor, their thinking appears to have been, and they didn’t want to lose access to interviews with the governor or quotes from his staff.
Working the press is not sinister. Campaigns and governments do it all the time. While Republicans are generally much more inaccessible and prone to hyper-control and vindictiveness toward reporters, Republicans don’t have a monopoly on attempting to intimidate the press. I almost don’t blame the Brownback people for beating in to submission most of what exists of the Kansas political press corps. Rather, I put greater blame on the significant chunk of the Kansas press corps who permitted themselves to be willing accomplices.
An example of the media’s willingness to be played by the Brownback team was their failure to pressure Brownback to agree to a debate that could be seen before the majority of the state’s voters. In their only head-to-head debate, the traditional (and non-televised) governor’s debate at the Kansas State Fair, the candidate I worked for, Tom Holland, mauled Brownback. After that, the Brownback team refused to agree to any televised debates in the Kansas City media market. Brownback’s team stalled, and our team knew they were stalling, and all we could hope for was that the Kansas media would pressure Brownback in to agreeing to a debate. That never happened. No TV station in the Kansas City media market offered to televise a debate because they knew Brownback wouldn’t say yes. The press largely blamed “both sides” for not agreeing to do a debate, even though they knew Brownback’s team was refusing to debate. The result was that Brownback was able to isolate himself from the press and not expose himself to tough questions about his record in Congress or his vision for Kansas.
The problem for Brownback’s team is they forgot that teenagers aren’t as easily intimidated as are the media supplicants pleading for access to a governor whose staff keeps him isolated from tough questions and any chance of criticism. Sure, the Brownback team was incredibly incompetent; they not only shouldn’t have picked the fight with Emma Sullivan, they should have immediately realized they’d messed up and issued their apology days ago. But what happened in Kansas could easily have happened in any of about 20 states where consolidation and media cutbacks have decimated whatever competent political reporting the state may have once had. In just about every state in America there are some smart, industrious, fair and principled reporters, and occasionally they aren’t hamstrung by cowardly or stupid editors and publishers. But too often the rest are easily controlled.
This morning Alex Pareene, after linking to Jim Romenesko’s post about Brownback’s communication commissar Sherriene Jones-Sontag, observed that someone like Jones-Sontag having that position for a governor “shows how easy it’s getting to ‘manage’ the press in far-flung real America.” The Brownback people are surely embarrassed that they were exposed as thin-skinned authoritarians trying to intimidate a non-compliant teenager who expressed what they deemed dangerous and disrespectful thoughts. But the people who should be ashamed are any reporters or editors who’ve bucked under to the same kind of unprincipled intimidation that, in order for it to not be obviously wrong to those who employed it against a teen over a tweet, must be used by them against the media just about every day of the year.