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Woster: The governor's office always sets the tone

Sometimes when my newspaper and the governor’s office were at odds over our coverage, I’d be unable to get formal interviews.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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Of the many press-secretary folks I dealt with during my newspaper years, two stand out for things they did to encourage a workable relationship between governors and reporters.

And when I say they helped to encourage that workable relationship for reporters with governors, I also mean between reporters and nearly all of the executive branch of government. A governor’s office sets the tone for how the departments and agencies in that branch of government will respond to newspaper and broadcast questions and requests.

The two people I’m talking about are Gretchen Lord Anderson and Bob Mercer. Former Gov. George Mickelson named Gretchen as his press secretary when he took office in 1987. Former Gov. Bill Janklow tapped Mercer to handle press relations during his last four years in office following the 1998 election.

Anderson and Mercer were my friends when we all worked in news before they joined governors’ staffs. During their press-secretary years, our relationships were mostly amicable, with, you know, an occasional dust-up.

Anderson left government for the ministry. Mercer returned to news reporting, and he remains a solid, knowledgeable and experienced newsman.

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Gretchen set a tone for the Mickelson administration’s dealings with reporters. She made it clear her press office wasn’t involved in party politics. She also made it clear the public, as represented by reporters, had a right to know most of what was going on in government. That became the basic position of the executive branch during her years. I think most reporters who worked with her thought she tried to provide them as much information as possible, always in an even-handed manner.

When Gretchen left the press secretary’s office, her successor, Janelle Toman, continued that method of operation. Janelle, a former United Press International reporter, understood the role of reporters as representatives of the public. She scolded me a couple of times, but she also was the one to whom fell the duty to walk into a room full of reporters late one evening and confirm that Mickelson had died in an airplane crash in Iowa.

When Mercer told me a day after that 1998 election that he had agreed to become Janklow’s press secretary, I thought he was joking. He was not, and his work over four years in that office improved reporters’ access to a governor who had developed a reputation for being difficult to work with for news outfits. Mercer’s approach improved the public’s access to information on what the governor and the rest of the executive branch was doing.

One way Mercer did was to formalize a weekly schedule called News Tips. It was posted for anyone to see on the state’s news website. It included many of the governor’s upcoming public meetings and appearances as well as information about other meetings and newsworthy events from the rest of the executive branch. Maybe that seems a small thing, but it made government more transparent for reporters and other citizens.

Janklow trusted Mercer enough to allow him to sometimes speak for the governor. Janklow didn’t let very many people answer for him. My own interactions as a reporter with Janklow during Mercer’s time weren’t always smooth, but I believe Bob’s influence helped keep them civil and productive. He knew who signed his paycheck, but he also knew he worked for the people of South Dakota and he knew the value of public information.

The weekly schedule of a governor’s activities lets citizens know what their elected leader is doing. Sometimes when my newspaper and the governor’s office were at odds over our coverage, I’d be unable to get formal interviews. I could check the schedule and go to a public appearance, where I’d approach the governor before or after the event. I never had a governor refuse to respond to questions face-to-face.

I glanced at the state news site recently and didn’t see News Tips. It’s a shame if they’re gone. I mean, sure, there are times when a governor does things in private. Most things, though, ought to be done in public, and citizens should be aware of them.

It’s a matter of openness, and it matters. Anderson and Mercer knew that.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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