Spinning the Media

One of the biggest surprises in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s nascent administration is its decision to ignore the Louisiana press corps as much as possible. One of Jindal’s biggest campaign platforms was increased transparency in government and a serious push for ethics reform, but once he was elected, it quickly became clear that Jindal and his top staff and press office aren’t particularly interested in answering questions about those issues — or many other subjects, for that matter. In the May 7 edition of The Independent Weekly, we published a cover story titled “Stonewall Jindal” that chronicled the Jindal administration’s routine refusal to comment on queries regarding its decision-making on proposed legislation affecting ethics enforcement, public education, the budget and more. It doesn’t matter whether you work for The Advocate, The Times-Picayune, The Independent or multiple other state press outlets: the clear message coming from Team Jindal is that it doesn’t care about Louisiana media — and by extension, Louisiana residents who genuinely care about what’s going on at the Capitol.

J.R. Ball, editor of Baton Rouge Business Report, referenced our story in his current May 19 column titled “Spinning the Media,” and writes, “This much, to me, is certain. 1) These reporters have never worked in sports, 2) Jindal is running his administration like he ran his gubernatorial campaign, and 3) the public, based on Jindal’s astronomical approval rating, could not give a damn. ... Clearly, Jindal’s handlers have decided to limit his exposure to the cynical and probing media, opting instead to have him communicate through e-mail blasts, choreographed public appearances, vetted press releases and, yes, late-night talk shows.”

As if anticipating the response of his statewide media brethren, Ball notes toward the end of his column, “Do I think Jindal should be more accessible to the media? Yes. Do I wish [press secretary Melissa] Sellers played nicer with my colleagues? Yes. Do I think we all suffer when the leader of our state isn’t required to face questions about the decisions he makes? Yes.”

Putting aside the obvious irony of newspaper editor Ball calling the media “cynical and probing” and refuting the entire crux of his argument in the preceding paragraph, there’s much more here than meets the eye. Ball uses some gridiron analogies in an attempt to prove his point, comparing Jindal’s no-access strategy to former LSU head coach Nick Saban and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “No one cares that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a jerk with the media,” writes Ball. “Why? Because this otherwise engaging and witty guy wins — and wins big.”

Ball couldn’t have picked two better examples to help fillet his tortured logic. Saban is the man who didn’t honor the terms of his LSU contract and bolted to the Miami Dolphins. Then after two losing seasons in Florida, Saban berated the Florida press when word leaked that the Crimson Tide was courting him. An angry Saban definitively declared, “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.” A week later, he worked up some more hypocritical outrage when the rumors wouldn’t die down. “I’m not talking about any of that stuff,” Saban said. “And I’d appreciate the courtesy of it not being asked.”

Of course, one week later Saban showed he was a liar, hopping a Crimson Tide-chartered jet and taking the Alabama job — without even telling his Miami players goodbye.

And I’m not sure what parallel sports universe Ball watches, but Belichick is neither witty nor engaging; he’s one of the most reviled men in the NFL. The surly Patriots coach was just fined $500,000 and cost his team a first-round draft pick after a league investigation confirmed that Belichick repeatedly broke league rules by secretly videotaping opposing teams’ signals.

Those aren’t the type of men I want my sons emulating, and it boggles the mind that Ball sees their playbook and character as models for Louisiana’s top elected official.

What makes Ball’s column even more insulting and disturbing is that it also sounds like he’s merely carrying the water for his boss, Business Report Publisher Rolfe McCollister Jr. In case you missed it, McCollister signed on as Jindal’s campaign treasurer a year ago — a highly unusual move for a newspaper publisher whose paper would ostensibly be impartially covering all candidates. But McCollister was just getting warmed up. After Jindal was elected governor, McCollister was named to Jindal’s transition team; offered to personally pay a campaign fine assessed to the Jindal campaign; and in his most eyebrow-raising move yet, announced that he was the founder of Believe in Louisiana, a 527 organization — unrestricted by campaign finance limits — whose sole mission is to promote Jindal’s policies and goals.

After former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s disastrous performance post-Katrina and Rita, it’s undeniable that Jindal took office as a promising reformer with a chance to implement strong leadership and change. But that’s no reason for Ball and McCollister to don permanent rose-colored glasses and morph into perennial cheerleaders.

There’s a mysterious, troubling amendment offered by top Jindal supporter and Republican state Sen. Robert Kostelka that changes the burden of proof for ethics charges from a “reliable and substantial” standard to “clear and convincing” — and could neuter Jindal’s vaunted ethics reforms. There’s also a divisive battle over school vouchers and continued wrangling over the budget; Jindal and the Legislature have some serious issues on their collective plate. Some simple answers and clear directions from Jindal would go a long way toward the governor reassuring voters that he’s making good on his campaign pledges. But so far the silence has been deafening, which isn’t a good thing — unless, like the top brass at Baton Rouge Business Report, you believe that government secrecy and operating in a vacuum is no big deal.