Monday, September 19, 2016

Malloy And His Pro-Active Flack-Catchers

Having consolidated political power in Louisiana, Huey “The Kingfish” Long moved the seat of government from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, where there were fewer boozy night spots or opportunities for sexual hanky-panky,  and herded all Louisiana’s political animals into a brand new, free standing art deco building, the better to keep an eye on his political competitors. Autocrats can never be too careful; enemies are everywhere. It pays to pay attention.

A populist progressive, Mr. Long also kept the newspapers humming. He was a political bad-boy who had a rich sense of humor and a photographic memory, operating in a state, somewhat like Connecticut, in which Democrats ruled nearly all the political roosts. “Keep your friends close, but enemies closer,” a lesson Michael Corleone claimed in The Godfather he had learned from Don Vito Corleone.

Governor Dannel Malloy may be the only Irish politician in Connecticut history whose sense of humor is stillborn. He can be mean; humorist columnist and radio talk show maven Colin McEnroe has dubbed him “the porcupine.” He can be courageous; early in his first administration, Mr. Malloy took on powerful teachers unions on behalf of urban students condemned to mark time in underperforming public schools until they graduated with what amounts to fraudulent diplomas. He can be politically agile; promising several times not to raise taxes to cover yet another deficit caused by overspending initiated by the General Assembly’s Democratic hegemon, he raised taxes yet again in his second term. Mr. Malloy’s second tax increase was the second largest in state history, following close on the heels of his first tax increase, the largest in state history. When the political fairies graced Malloy in his crib with political virtues – not the same as ethical virtues – the humor fairy stayed at home.

Mr. Long was popular and charismatic. Mr. Malloy is unpopular, his approval rating hovering around 23 percent. He is plodding, politically manipulative, as befits a four term Mayor of Stamford, overly protective and an administrative bully.

And that is why Mr. Malloy has instructed press liaisons in Connecticut’s ever expanding state agencies to be on the look-out for disruptive reporters. Some citizens may wonder why state agencies should be out-rigged with media flack-catchers. Mr. Long was able to get along without them and held frequent news conferences at his political headquarters, a lavish hotel in disreputable New Orleans where wit flowed like wine, cigar smoke scented the air and all the press boys had a rip-roaring time.

In mid-July, Courant investigative reporter Jon Lender tells us, Mr. Malloy’s top flack-catcher, Press Officer Devon Puglia, sent along to “about 25 executive-branch agencies' public information officers (PIOs)” a directive “to send a daily email to the governor's office that lists all questions they received from news reporters and what responses they gave them.”

Mr. Long made no attempt to control a press that he had eating out of the palm of his hand. Not so Mr. Malloy.

"He's definitely looking to bash us in this column," public information officer for the state Department of Public Health Maura Downes wrote in a July 13 email to the governor's office; the offender was Greenwich Times newspaper columnist Bob Horton. Ms. Downes was only following orders. She added that Mr. Horton was “like the Jonathan Pelto of Greenwich,” not high praise.  Mr. Malloy’s educational policies are Mr. Pelto’s bete noir.

Mr. Malloy’s critics, more numerous now than they were at the beginning of his first gubernatorial win, wonder whether the communications officers in state agencies are being “politicized.”  Mr. Lender notes that “the Malloy administration has begun replacing some veteran communications officers at state agencies with politically active Democrats — after the Democrat-controlled General Assembly quietly removed those posts from the state's merit system, and made them into direct political appointments.” As Mr. Malloy’s poll numbers dip, his beleaguered administration appears to be circling its wagons to prevent assaults from an awakened media corp. Proactive stories are being fed to the media, and administrative eyes on agency communications directors will have a chilling effect on transparent and honest communication.

If the political ship is leaking, dangerous cracks can always be filled with wads of propaganda – a temporary, not a permanent solution, to persistent problems. When transparency is the problem – always the case when sinking administrations become opaque -- the permanent solution to the problem cannot be media manipulation. 

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