Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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Outtakes—Road Trip

Last week, I took a road trip to Tallahassee to participate in an important media event leading into the upcoming legislative session.

Every January, Associated Press hosts a series of press conferences during which the top political reporters in the state get to ask state leaders direct questions without any handlers filtering the responses.

The AP Legislative Planning Session is where the governor first introduces his budget proposal. The House Speaker and Senate President outline their legislative agendas, and the Florida Cabinet weighs in.

Held on the top floor on the state capitol building, reporters from the Miami Herald, Tampa Bay Times, Orlando Sentinel, Sun Sentinel, Tallahassee Democrat and, for the first time, Inweekly peppered the politicians with cameras rolling. We all waved our hands and shouted our questions. The day was fast-paced, exciting and informative.

Press conferences—real ones, not staged photo opportunities—are important in a democracy. The politicians are more transparent and less likely to dodge the questions when several reporters pursue an issue. The first question often sets the stage for follow-ups that dig deeper. In the end, the public wins because they see their leaders get off script and explain their agenda in their own words.

Press conferences aren’t for wimps. Phonies are quickly exposed. Good reporters know when their questions aren’t being answer, and many times they know more about the issue than the politician.

Good elected officials understand their value, but the officials need to have a good understanding of the issues and must be able to think well on their feet. Reading a press release or prepared speech won’t get them through it unscathed. Press conferences aren’t easily controlled, which is why most political handlers avoid them like the plague. But it’s that unpredictable element that makes press conferences so exciting.

During the Billings murder investigation and the BP oil spill, we had press conferences daily that were almost as good as the AP one. The national media made it exciting, but the local reporters held their own. WEAR TV had primarily Dan Thomas and Greg Newman. The News Journal had Kris Wernowsky, Travis Griggs, and a host of others.

The competition was healthy, and the public was well served by the coverage. We also had some great moments, like Sheriff David Morgan’s reply to question about a complaint from Patrick Gonzalez: “And the people in hell want ice water” and the BP Barbies hiding from the media.

I long for those days. Maybe they will return this year, but I won’t hold my breath.