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The Politics of Television

By Joan Oliver Goldsmith

Think you'd enjoy being a local TV political reporter? Here's your job: Be as on-the-spot as a YouTube video of a truck being rammed by a train. Make the Minnesota Legislature as entertaining as The Daily Show. Produce policy analysis that's as interesting as talk radio. All the while maintaining your objectivity, because when you evaluate the truth of one party's political ads, the other side is sure to rejoice. And besides, if blogs can't depend on your facts when they write their opinions, how can the electorate get anything straight?

But somehow they fill the airwaves with zest and passion. Pat Kessler (WCCO-4), Tom Hauser (KSTP-5), Mary Lahammer (TPT-2) and John Croman (KARE-11). It's a great beat, they claim. The Twin Cities is a top-20 market. Minnesota viewers rate high on voter turnout, educational level and civic involvement. And, says Kessler, "Politicians really want to talk with you. You're a conduit to the greater public."

The eagerness of Minnesota politicians to talk with reporters also speaks to the quality of the local news scene. "We have experienced reporters-I'm thinking especially about Pat Kessler and Tom Hauser-who understand how politics in Minnesota work," says Mark Neuzil, professor of advanced reporting at the University of St. Thomas and weekly contributor to MinnPost. "I've been in other cities where you see some young reporter who wasn't born there and can barely find their way to the [capitol] building."

 So, in order of longest tenured on the local political beat, here are profiles of those who cover our politics for the network affiliates and public TV.

 

Pat Kessler (WCCO)

Twenty-Five Years of Asking 'What's Real?'

Pat Kessler has been covering Minnesota politics for WCCO since he joined the station in 1984 after seven years at Minnesota Public Radio. "I'm grateful and astounded I've lasted this long," he says.

He was "bitten by the [news] bug" as an English major at Macalester, when he studied with George Moses, the former AP bureau chief in the Twin Cities.

His definition of the job is simple: "I tell people what happened today, and what may happen." The trick, he says, "is separating what is real from what is not."

In Kessler's mind, balanced reporting is more than "'he said, she said.' You have to weigh the arguments."

And so was born "Reality Check." On a regular basis, Kessler gets what for TV is a luxurious amount of time-about two minutes-to ponder whether the statement or the number reported in the news accurately describes the situation. After all, he says "people in politics create their own reality." During the segment, the words "TRUE," "NOT EXACTLY," "DISTORTION," "HERE'S WHY" and "NEED TO KNOW" flash across video of everyone from the president on down. The visuals aren't sexy, but Kessler says viewers eat it up. "Thousands of viewers have contacted me about 'Reality Check'-with responses ranging from praise to profanity."

Kessler has great admiration for politicians-for their engagement and willingness to fight. This is reflected in his interviewing technique. "Over time I've found the most effective tool for talking to politicians is being completely direct, completely honest. I tell them exactly what I'm going to do, then do it. And sometimes it's uncomfortable," he says. "But in some ways politicians appreciate it if you stab them in the front not the back."

 

Tom Hauser (KSTP)

Political Junkie and Hockey Fanatic

Tom Hauser loves competition, whether it's politics or hockey. "They're both 'contact' sports," he says. "There's the occasional-OK, frequent-cheap shot. And they both feature 'sudden death overtime' periods (see: U.S. Senate Recount Trial)." With 12 years of full-time political reporting at KSTP under his belt, he figures he's the only political reporter in the country who moonlights as a hockey announcer. (He works the boys' and girls' state hockey tournaments for KSTP's sister station, Channel 45).

He's quick to point out that KSTP's "Truth Test" segment predates WCCO's "Reality Check," although when "Truth Test" started in 2000, it aired only at election time.

When asked about great moments in his career, he cites the challenge of covering the Paul Wellstone plane crash: "We broke the news in our Midday newscast and stayed on the air for several hours straight. There were so many important stories to tell about who would replace him in the Senate and as a candidate. But most importantly, we had to remind people why Sen. Wellstone touched people in so many ways both as a politician and as a friend."

Hauser is particularly proud of his work on the 1970 murder of St. Paul police officer Jim Sackett. In 1994, Hauser began working on the unsolved case and uncovered new information. St. Paul police investigators and the FBI reopened the case and finally convicted two men in 2006.

In addition to covering daily political news, Hauser hosts the Sunday morning public affairs program "At Issue," which gives him a chance to delve more deeply into the questions of the day.

 He has seen the pace of his professional life accelerate since the '80s. "At Channel 5 we have two hours in the morning, an hour at midday, a 4:30 newscast, a 5:00 newscast, 6, 6:30, 10:00, not to mention updates on the Internet," he says. "Instead of having a couple of deadlines a day, now it seems like it's one constant deadline."

 

Mary Lahammer (TPT)

Revealing the Humanity Behind the Sound Bites

Mary Lahammer has been covering politics for TPT since 1998 and began hosting her own weekly program, "Almanac: At the Capitol," a few years after that.

She has made something of a specialty of uncovering the human side of politicians over the years. "Politicians are so practiced," she says. They hear 'health care' and do their 30-second sound bite ... and it's getting worse and worse. What I want to get at is figuring out who they are when they don't have a rehearsed statement."

Associate professor Debra Petersen, who teaches political communication at the University of St. Thomas, cites as a prime example the documentary that Lahammer did interviewing Minnesota's three senatorial candidates in the fall of 2008. In the program, Barkley, Coleman and Franken talk about their personal experiences with substance abuse, young romance, children's deaths and more.

Petersen says that Lahammer's work demonstrates the level of respect and trust that she believes Minnesota politicians have for the TV press corps: "I can't imagine that they would tell her the things they did, without knowing ... that it would end up in a way that they would think was at least fair."

Lahammer's magic secret for getting politicians to open up: "Do your homework." Before interviewing the principal subject, she interviews his or her spouse, ex-spouse, family and friends. "I've been shocked by how many times I've told them something their mom said-that they've never heard before." In that moment of surprise, interesting TV shows up.

One of her great moments in Minnesota political journalism was "getting into Cuban president Fidel Castro's private compound to see him wine and dine Minnesota businesses and politicians-specifically Gov. Jesse Ventura. Seeing Castro and Ventura side by side in a country Americans are not allowed to travel to was absolutely surreal, especially when Ventura asked Castro if he had anything to do with JFK's assassination." For the record, the answer was "No."

 

John Croman (KARE)

Passion and Frustration

John Croman, the self-described "neophyte" of this group, became chief political reporter for KARE in 2004. But he'd been reporting on politics for almost 20 years before that.

His passion for his subject leads to frustration with the constraints he operates under. "The threat of TV becoming boring is always there," he says. Government, by its nature, includes a lot of times when the only action is a "BOPSA" (bunch of people sitting around). Producers live in fear that a particular story could be a channel changer.

A low point for Croman was when his producer called him during the presidential campaign after he'd spent hours waiting for Barack Obama to speak, telling him to go cover a car crash because they had great helicopter footage. He'd fallen victim to the tyranny of the visual-and the budget that decreed he was the only reporter available.

But TV's insatiable hunger for exciting footage has also made him "as clichéd as it sounds ... a firsthand witness to history in the making." To be right there in Denver when the Democrats nominated Obama, to be standing with the Minnesota delegation when John McCain and the Palin family took the stage in St. Paul, put him "in the center of the political universe.

"Most people my age have already moved on to management jobs, network TV or left the business entirely," Croman says. He's a dedicated political reporter, in "a rare market where you can still find actual adults running newsrooms and seasoned veterans out reporting." And that, he loves. 

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