The obscenity-laden voicemail, the call for an Burr-Hamilton-style duel, talks of impeachment, and a hint, quickly quashed, of resignation ...The week-long, headline-grabbing saga centered on Maine Gov. Paul LePage all started when a reporter asked the governor to respond to accusations that he was racist, allegations he suggested came from a Democratic state representative.
It won't happen again, Mr. LePage told a select group of reporters on Wednesday. From now on, the Republican governor says, he will speak to the media only on his terms.
“I will no longer speak to the press ever again after today,” LePage said to a select group of reporters Wednesday. “And I’m serious. Everything will be put in writing. I am tired of being caught – the gotcha moments.”
“You folks live in a seven-second fiction world,” he added. “I live in 24-hour reality.”
Although the debacles fueling LePage's decision may be particularly eyebrow-raising, following as they did a series of profane and threatening comments and allegations of inappropriately race-focused remarks, the threat of a media blackout hardly sets him apart from other politicians whose distaste for mainstream media is increasingly shared by their populace.
LePage announced his new, no-speaking policy in a restricted press conference, live-streamed on Periscope by CBS affiliate WGME's reporter Brad Rogers.
Maine political pundits consider LePage’s threat an empty one, after his previous temporary blacklists on newspapers such as the Portland Press Herald. Nevertheless, his policy highlights the tension between politicians and the press, as American trust of the media is at an all time low: LePage's stay-away tactic even resembles strategies of presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
But LePage has taken it much further, says Lance Dutson, a longtime GOP political operative in Maine.
“He has the same animosity towards the press as Donald Trump. It’s a derivative of general Republican distrust of what is sometimes considered the liberal press. But I think it’s gone to a point of pathology with LePage,” Mr. Dutson tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “He and his close supporters will blame any and all of his problems on a liberal press. It’s kind of fantasyland.”
Yet the governor is hardly out of reach. LePage calls in to radio stations at least twice a week, holds town halls almost weekly, and regularly meets with community groups and trade organizations, his communication director Peter Steele tells the Monitor in an email.
“He prefers to speak directly to the people he represents, so his message is not filtered and distorted by the media and the political establishment,” writes Mr. Steele. “He takes questions and faces criticism from the Maine people far more than any other elected official this state ever has ... Governor LePage gives hours of dialogue every week to average Mainers.”
In the press conference Wednesday, LePage openly addressed his historical beef with the press, as he demanded an apology from a television reporter that appeared to suggest Thursday that Democratic state Rep. Drew Gattine was one of several legislators that called LePage racist. Comments the governor made at a Wednesday town hall meeting had come under criticism, after LePage said that 90 percent of the photos in a binder of drug dealer arrests in 2016 were of people of color, according to the Portland Press Herald – not the first time he has been accused of fixating on suspects' race.
“Frankly, it’s been going on and after six years I should have caught on, but that was a cheap shot, and he got my goat,” LePage said Wednesday. “And I don’t know if he researched and knows that I am very sensitive to helping black people in some of the Caribbean islands, but it’s very, very sensitive and he hit a wrong button. He hit the wrong nerve.”
Mr. Gattine has said that he called LePage's comments "racially charged" and "not at all helpful" to bringing down drug use in Maine.
"He said I made racially [charged] comments. Maybe, in my mind, it is semantics," LePage said after holding a brief meeting to apologize in person to Gattine. "But in his mind, after talking to him, it was clear that there was a real difference. Fine."
This isn't the first time LePage has said he will cut off press access. In 2013, his administration said it would no longer provide comments to the three newspapers owned by MaineToday Media, including the Portland Press Herald, which serves the state's largest city.
LePage put the policy in place after the Press Herald ran a series of articles about his environmental protection commissioner, Patricia Aho. The Press Herald portrayed Ms. Aho, a former industrial lobbyist, as intentionally weakening environmental protections to benefit her former clients.
‘‘All we’re asking for is objectivity and a balanced approach to reporting,’’ Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, said at the time. “We’re not finding that MaineToday Media has done that with the LePage administration.”
The policy didn’t last. On Thursday, after leaving the threatening voicemail for Gattine, LePage even invited a reporter from the Press Herald and a television crew to his residence, where he said he would like to challenge the representative to a duel, and "would point it right between his eyes."
Mike Tipping, author "The Tipping Point" political blog that appears in the Bangor Daily News, says LePage's other media tactics have proven more lasting. LePage prefers town halls, Mr. Tipping tells the Monitor, and regularly calls in to the talk radio station WMOV. On Tuesday, for instance, LePage apologized over the air for his profane verbal attack, and said he was considering resigning. After the media reported LePage’s comments, however, he posted a Tweet to the contrary:
It’s not uncommon for a politician to restrict media access, although such moves often fuel controversy. Mr. Trump has come under fire for revoking the press credentials of news outlets including the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico, The Daily Beast, and The Huffington Post.
Trump, the Washington Post, and others have criticized Ms. Clinton for not holding a press conference for at least 269 days, although the Clinton camp has said she has made herself available to the media in other ways.
Politicians and candidates have long established enemies in the media world. Richard Nixon kept an “enemies list” of journalists. Former President George W. Bush, who during his time in office openly admitted to "rarely" reading news stories, told Brit Hume of Fox News that "the best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."
In 2002, his brother Jeb, then the governor of Florida, ended his blackout of the national media, which he self-imposed after granting an hourlong interview to The New York Times in 2000, only to find that story dwelled more on his role in the presidential campaign of his older brother than his record as the governor of Florida.
Politicians' contentious relationship with the media mirrors many Americans' mistrust. In 2015, just 40 percent of Americans reported a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the news, according to a Gallup News Poll. Among Republicans, that percentage drops to 32 percent.
"The same forces behind the drop in trust in government more generally, as well confidence in many U.S. institutions, may also be at work with the media," Gallup's Rebecca Riffkin wrote at the time. "But some of the loss in trust may have been self-inflicted," she added, citing "major venerable news organizations [who] have been caught making serious mistakes in the past several years," including NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.