Monday, May 08, 2006

SAT 5-6-6 EDITORIAL >> Pesky critics blacklisted

After more than a dozen years in state office, Gov. Huckabee still has not developed the thick skin and the serenity that marks great politicians, and this week it cost him again. When he retaliated against the pesky Arkansas Times by shutting the paper off from the news flow in the governor’s office, it made the national prints.

No one outside Arkansas would have cared, except Huckabee is running for president, and his pettiness will make shakers in the Republican Party wonder if he is ready for prime time. (The governor’s office often leaves us in the dark about his activities, but that may be on account of his staff’s ineptitude rather than retaliation for the criticism we’ve lobbed at him.)
The Arkansas Times, a weekly newspaper at Little Rock that has a liberal bent, has criticized Huckabee since soon after he became lieutenant governor in 1993. Max Brantley, the editor, has for years lodged complaints against him with the state Ethics Commission, mainly over his loose fund-raising and spending habits. The commission, whose members include his own appointees, sided with Huckabee part of the time, but also slapped his wrists on others. Huckabee maintains that all of Brantley’s ethics complaints were frivolous. The paper reported extensively on the Huckabees’ heavy use of State Police airplanes for personal and political business.

So Huckabee had enough of the Times’ querulousness and took the paper off the list of news media to notify of his appointments to boards and commissions, notices of press conferences and the like. Brantley says it is a violation of Arkansas law and of the First Amendment itself, and the paper may sue. Huckabee says the Times is not a “legitimate” newspaper, so he does not need to oblige it.

Huckabee is not the first politician to burn over newspaper critics. Every governor has had his tormentors. Gov. Bill Clinton had almost daily critics on the editorial pages of the two Little Rock dailies then, the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat. The Democrat for 10 years devoted its opinion pages to almost daily screeds against Clinton and his administration. Instead of retaliating, Clinton became ever more attentive to the paper’s editors, sometimes leaking stories to the belligerent Democrat managing editor to curry favor. And it worked.

Gov. Orval Faubus in the early years of his endless reign could not stand the Arkansas Gazette’s constant criticism of his efforts to block desegregation of Little Rock schools, so he found a clever way to retaliate. Faubus did not hold news conferences, answer questions or make news of any kind in the afternoon, which would be on the morning Gazette’s cycle. All government agencies had to follow the practice. News would be generated only in the morning so that the afternoon Democrat, which was friendly to him, would have the news first. Gazette reporters could not even trap him for a quote in the hallways in the afternoon. Gazette reporters had to be more resourceful in cadging news from state agencies.

The Internet and daily news blogs like the Arkansas Times’ popular blog make managing newsbreaks like that much harder. It must have irritated Huckabee that the Times blog was beating his favorite newspaper, the Democrat-Gazette, on the news that he generated himself every day. The Times reported the development within minutes while the state paper did not come out until the morning. If it were Mike Huckabee’s private affairs or even his campaign news, his pettiness in disfavoring one news outlet would be only stupid churlishness. He risked only his dignity. But the business of the governor and his office are public matters, supported wholly by the taxpayers, and he cannot choose to favor those whom he divines to be friendly or even neutral or “objective.” That is not merely bad behavior, it’s against the law.

Huckabee would do himself and the people a favor if he reprised his good act on the Colbert Report the other night and told the Times tomorrow: “I was just spoofing. You’re back in the flow.”