Blagojevich and the Politics of Diversion | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Blagojevich and the Politics of Diversion

If you turned on a radio, a television or cracked open a newspaper earlier this week, there's a good chance you caught Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.  In an attempt to overshadow his own impeachment trial in the Illinois state legislature the governor went on a national media blitz.  Blagojevich's attempt to divert attention from controversy was not a new strategy.  WBEZ's Ben Calhoun reports that in less public ways, Blagojevich has been using similar tactics for years.

Earlier this week, the governor did national talk show after national talk show.

It seemed a blatant attempt to upstage the impeachment process.

Eventually, Blagojevich media campaign got so intense that the day after he appeared on the View, Barbara Walter called him out.

WALTERS: He did us. He did the Today Show. He did Larry King Live.  He did The Early Show. He did Nightline. And he's ringing your doorbell right now.

To be fair, the tactic of diversion is par for the course in politics.

A lot of times when politicians have news they want to bury, they a hold press event late on a Friday.

The hope is that the story gets little coverage and then gets drowned out over the weekend.

This week Blagojevich used a high-profile diversionary tactic, but the truth is that Blagojevich's relationship with the media has been shaped by a different diversionary strategy.

One he's used for years—one that's more subtle—and one that, you've probably heard little about.

In this tactic, politicians who are caught up in bad news to hold press events about something good.

TAPE: Governor Blagojevich.

Last September Governor Blagojevich was getting hammered with negative press.

One weekend the Chicago Sun-Times contacted the governor about a story.

Blagojevich had not returned campaign contributions from a convicted felon tied to Tony Rezko.

The story ran on Monday—and that same morning, Blagojevich called a press conference on Chicago's West Side

TAPE: Good morning, and welcome to Easter Seals new therapeutic school and center for autism research.

It was a recipe for confrontation.

Reporters were eager to ask questions, and Blagojevich was expected to take some.

Still as soon as officials got things rolling, it was clear it was going to be complicated.

TAPE: We're pleased to have you here today, in our new facility.  And pleased to have the governor and supporting cast behind us here.

Supporting cast meant the governor had invited number of autistic youth, and parents of autistic youth to a press conference about autism legislation.

Reporters found themselves in a jam.

Cut to the tough questions and possibly seem callous to a worthy cause—or risk not getting to ask them.

Eventually they asked the governor about the money that hadn't been returned.

BLAGOJEVICH: I learned about that today. We're going to look into that.

There was tension in the room as reporters sparred with the governor about corruption and his political problems—as parents and autistic children stood by.

One parent got frustrated and stepped to the mic.

PARENT: It's about helping people, it's not about this other crap you're talking about, it's about families.

One reporter asked the governor when he had decided to do a press conference about autism.

BLAGOJEVICH: When was it scheduled?

Turned out Blagojevich had worked out plans for the press conference over the weekend, as negative news about him was mounting.

After the news conference—several reporters stayed and talk to parents, apologizing that they had to ask about scandal and corruption at such a sensitive event.

But it was already strategy the governor hadcome to be known for.

BLAGOJEVICH: Let me start by thanking all the men and women here who help others.

Last fall, the Chicago Tribune published a poll that pegged Blagojevich's approval at 13-percent.

Blagojevich had his office tell news organizations that he would available for questions.

But he would be available at an event about hunger relief.

Once again reporters asked difficult questions about corruption and dismal approval ratings as advocates for a worthy cause watched on in frustration.

BLAGOJEVICH: Those are stupid questions because they're not relevant, and they're not relevant.

At one point, one hunger relief worker stepped in.

This too became something the governor did frequently—when faced with tough questions, he would turn the mic over to a supporter.

TAPE: This is a governor that raised the minimum wage and helped a lot of people.  He's for the needy not the greedy.
TAPE: If everybody doesn't see that, I don't know what's wrong with them.
BLAGOJEVICH: That's great!  No more questions.

Moments like this rarely or never made it into stories, but it affected the ability of reporters to question the governor on tough issues.

In December, he did it on a national stage, when lawmakers voted to impeach Blagojevich and the governor held a press conference to respond.

When he did, he surrounded himself with people in need of healthcare.

CHASE: You know, it's not that original of a tactic. I mean, I've definitely seen other politicians use it. It's just the governor probably used it a little more often.

John Chase with the Chicago Tribune has been covering Blagojevich since he was first elected governor.

He's seen the governor use the strategy more and more over years.

Chase says he remembers when Blagojevich was first identified as “Public Official A” in the federal investigation of the governor's administration.

Blagojevich made himself available for question—but at an event about home heating assistance.

CHASE: Heat for senior citizens for the upcoming winter.

Chase asked the governor about the investigation.

CHASE: There was a senior citizen who got up and said why are you asking all these questions that aren't about this event? And the governor loved that and said, 'Yes. Listen to what she has to say.' He literally just stood behind her and just let her talk. And was sort of trying to make the media feel guilty about asking these questions, which were obviously very important questions that needed to be asked.

Talking with reporters who have covered Blagojevich over the years—there's a general feeling of frustration with the governor's use of this kind of diversionary tactic.

The frustration comes from a sense that people rarely got satisfying answers to tough and important questions.

Today Blagojevich will appear before the state senate, where many of the issues reporters were asking about have come to a head.

When he's there, the governor will have a chance to confront those issues.

Although it's worth noting that because Blagojevich is only appearing to make a closing argument, according to the rules of the impeachment trial, he will not be forced to answer questions.

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