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Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«FC»«MDBO»«RM75»COL053.PRB - The Costs of Candor«MDNM»
The Todd Akin controversy has reminded me of other times that Missouri politicians have gotten into trouble for misspeaking -- or, maybe, for saying what they truly believed, but subsequently claimed were mistakes in language.
As journalists, we appreciate those sources who speak to us with unrestrained candor. But we sometimes extract a heavy price for the candor we seek.
That lesson was demonstrated in the early 1980s shortly after the discovery that the eastern Missouri town of Times Beach had been contaminated by dioxin in waste oil sprayed on the town's unpaved roads to keep down dust.
The contamination was so high and dangerous that residents were forced to abandon their homes. There were immediate proposals for government assistance to Times Beach residents for their losses.
I chatted about that with the Senate Appropriations Committee chair, St. Louis County's Ed Dirck. It was a relaxed, laid-back conversation in which there was no immediate story objective.
That quickly changed when Dirck answered a casual, almost philosophical question of why government should bail out the Times Beach folks when there is no expectation for government to pay a family that lost its home to fire and chose not to have fire insurance.
Dirck immediately responded that the Times Beach homeowners should not be compensated. Besides, he said, it was their own fault because it was their city that agreed to a cheap contract for oiling their roads.
His comments became a major story and triggered a torrent of criticism that Dirck was being heartless. Times Beach was a lower-income community. Some residents faced horrid economic losses without government assistance. Beyond the losses, they were going to have to deal for years with questions about the long-term health effects for their families.
To his credit, Dirck never blamed me. He said it and, at least at the time, believed what he said. But, politically, if not governmentally, it was a stupid thing to say.
A similar situation arises when a public official says something that we in the media are pretty sure the official did not intend to say. Do we report it? Should we ask, "did you really mean that?"
The value in asking a follow-up question as to whether a politician really meant what he or she said was demonstrated by Bob Holden on the day he became governor in 2001. Talking with reporters immediately after his inauguration, Holden said that the very next day he was going to meet with the head of American Airlines that was negotiating a takeover of St. Louis-based TWA.
Holden's announcement was big news. TWA was facing bankruptcy and its takeover by a non-Missouri airline raised major concerns about what level of service would remain at the St. Louis airport.
But Holden's statement struck me as a bit odd. The sale was about to be made. I was sure the top airline executives had more pressing matters than meeting with a governor.
So, shortly after, I asked Holden if he really planned to spend his first full day as governor out of his office. Well, no, Holden said, that's not what he meant. He meant that he'd talk with the airline executive by phone or send one of his staffers. Holden even acknowledged that nobody had been able to get a meeting or discussion scheduled.
It was not the first such misstatement by a governor. We once had a governor who misspoke so frequently that he told a few in the press corps that we should report what we knew he meant, not what he actually said. Of course, we cannot do that in our profession.
As for Todd Akin, I got to know him very well during his years in Missouri's House. He regularly joined me for lunch. I enjoyed those conversations because there was a remarkably unreserved candor in Akin. Unlike so many politicians, he would not pause before answering a question to figure out the safest answer. Akin seemed to have less regard than most politicians I've covered for the political consequences of his statements.
As I've written before, I have a friend who is afraid the Akin controversy will have a chilling effect on politicians' candor -- that they'll be less likely to respond without reservation and less eager to make themselves available for casual conversations.
I share that concern.
But I'm also hopeful that from the Akin episode, politicians may have learned that if you say something to a reporter, you better be sure you say exactly what you mean. We cannot get inside a politician's head to determine what the politician meant to say. And it certainly is not our job to protect politicians from their own statements.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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