Editorial: How Gov. Eric Greitens and other politicians avoid hard questions

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens should quit “going around the filter” by avoiding the news media. Our democratic system is built on a foundation that includes a free press asking tough questions.
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens should quit “going around the filter” by avoiding the news media. Our democratic system is built on a foundation that includes a free press asking tough questions. jledford@kcstar.com

Aides to Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens physically block reporters from approaching him with questions. His communications team had locks installed to avoid being forced to deflect queries in person. Inquiries posed via email or phone message are routinely ignored.

Instead, as the lead story in Monday’s Star put it, Greitens relies primarily on Facebook to “spread his message and curate his image.” No question about why he’d do that. Everybody looks and sounds better on a wall they control.

By and large, the public seems to approve of such efforts to “go around the filter.”

But we in the news business work for you, just as public officials do. So when Greitens and other politicians send in a football team to block and tackle, it’s you they are really running away from.

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That’s not to say Greitens doesn’t take any questions. He has held one full-fledged news conference since he was sworn in in January, and he goes on Fox News. The governor also does Facebook Live chats in which he discusses only those concerns he wants to address: He answered one inquiry about the long-term effects of not balancing the state budget, for example, and another about his workout routine.

And who doesn’t love a story from around the campfire? On Saturday, the governor posted this regular-guy message: “Hope everyone is having a great weekend! Lots of fun here. Good hiking (even if I forgot an extra blanket for Jacob). Caught a frog in a stream. One big controversy: how to teach kids to make S’mores. Sheena goes for a lightly toasted marshmallow; I like to set ‘em on fire. Fortunately, Joshua likes ALL marshmallows.”

But beyond the s’more controversy, the governor needs to respond to questions about dark money donations from anonymous sources to a nonprofit set up to support his agenda. As a candidate, the former Navy SEAL sold himself as an alternative to “corrupt career politicians,” “well-paid lobbyists” and “special-interest insiders.” But now that he’s been elected, shouldn’t he live up to his promises by revealing which businesses and lobbyists have paid for his inauguration and travel?

A lack of transparency is nothing if not bipartisan.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri so far has felt no need to answer one big question: Will she vote to confirm President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, or not? “I’m not talking about Gorsuch,” she’s said.

McCaskill has a better track record of accessibility and often makes herself available to reporters. But in delaying taking a stand, she joins the elusive, though by no means exclusive, likes of Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri and Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, whose views on the Republican health care bill remained a mystery right up until the legislation was pulled from consideration last Friday.

Unlike them, McCaskill will eventually have to make her views known, so the point of ducking now is less clear. Her spokeswoman, Sarah Feldman, responded that “since his hearings ended just days ago, and the committee won’t finish its process for another week, Claire’s finishing up her homework on Judge Gorsuch to make sure she has all of the facts about his positions and judicial record before making a final decision. As always, she’ll be open and honest with Missouri about where she lands and why.”

That’s good, but the pretext that she’s still weighing his qualifications makes her sound like those Iowa caucusgoers or New Hampshire primary voters who claim they still don’t know enough about the candidates after meeting each of them only six times.

And more and more, public officials at all levels and in both parties feel no compunction to answer any questions they don’t enjoy hearing. They get away with it because voters don’t insist otherwise.

Trump is an exception, as is Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. Trump calls reporters names, but then he does call them.

When the president calls on journalists at a news conference, he’s also more transparent than most about scanning the room for “a friendly reporter.” During his campaign, he once praised the extraordinary insight of a Breitbart reporter whose question was whether Trump agreed that his message was really all about love.

Sometimes such cherry-picking efforts backfire: When George W. Bush mimicked Texas death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker begging him to spare her, conservative Tucker Carlson didn’t leave that out of his story. And when a liberal Huffington Post blogger heard Barack Obama talk about those who “cling to guns or religion,” at a closed fundraiser in San Francisco, she reported it.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certainly did himself no favors in taking only one reporter — who has said that “being adversarial is a problem” in journalism, and who works for the far-right Independent Journal Review — with him on his recent trip to Asia. Tillerson explained that he’s “not a big media press access person.”

But it isn’t about you, sir — and it’s not about us, either.

Voters do demand that you and all other public servants answer difficult questions. But many only require this of officials in the other party, and give their own team a pass.

When that changes, Greitens and the rest will stop trying to get around the public they serve.

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