According to reporters who cover the governor's office, if Jesse Ventura were a cartoon character, steam would surely be whistling out of his jug ears. The guy is ready to blow. "He seems deeply, deeply angry right now," says capitol reporter Jim Ragsdale, who writes for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I think this recent spat with the media is more intense because of the emotions of the day."
Pat Kessler, political correspondent for WCCO-TV (Channel 4), agrees. "This is the latest in a series of eruptions from the governor--some of them serious, some of them shtick, most of them both," says Kessler. "And while this too shall pass, it may be longer in duration than previous disagreements with the media."
The latest flare-up in a two-and-a-half-year media jihad--which has been highlighted by (among other things) drunken-Irishman jokes, jackal press IDs, and a bizarre observation about "hunting man"--commenced late on Tuesday, October 2. Ventura and his wife Terry had visited the remains of the World Trade Center with New York Gov. George Pataki and a camera crew from ABC-TV's Good Morning America. No other media--including reporters who had traveled from Minnesota--were permitted to come along. A day later Kevin Diaz, the Star Tribune's Washington correspondent, approached Ventura spokesman John Wodele on the set of Good Morning America to request a one-on-one interview with the governor. When asked what the topic would be, Diaz said he wanted to know whether there had been an "arrangement" between the morning show and Ventura's office that resulted in ABC having sole rights to the ground-zero visit.
Wodele says he had explained to Diaz the night before that ABC had paid for his and the governor's airfare, and two hotel rooms (which, as it turns out, is standard practice for the show). He also acknowledged that Ventura had agreed not to appear on any other morning shows or The Late Show With David Letterman during the visit (also standard practice). But at no point was there an "exclusivity agreement" concerning coverage of the tour, Wodele told Diaz: ABC had set up the event with Governor Pataki's office, and any issues of access had nothing to do with Ventura. As Wodele loudly took Diaz to task, Ventura, who was standing nearby, entered the fray.
"What Kevin insinuated on that first night irritated me, but I answered the questions," Wodele says now. "But when he came after me again the next day, I got upset. The governor saw me getting badgered by a reporter, and he came to my rescue."
Reporters who covered the New York junket say Ventura was spoiling for a fight that morning. After all, he'd been grilled the day before for flying away two days after 28,000 state employees had walked off their jobs. Still, the governor had reason to be miffed at the coverage of the Diaz episode, which was portrayed as a pissing match and did not feature much of an effort to get at the facts behind what transpired.
If you believe Wodele--and everyone who covered the fracas says the governor's spokesman has been open and honest throughout the affair--Ventura didn't even know he was going to be on Good Morning America until "a day or two" before he went to New York. Wodele says that when he approached the morning show to help arrange a trip to the site, he assumed there would be full media access, and that when he found out ABC had negotiated exclusivity with Governor Pataki's office, he complained to the network. He says he was assured that at least one local representative from a radio station, newspaper, and TV station would be allowed to go along. That so-called pool arrangement fell through at the last minute, Wodele says, whereupon he consulted Ventura, who decided not to interfere with Pataki's plans during a sensitive time. "The thing that still bothers me is that all these people are still saying ABC got exclusive access because of some kind of payment arrangement," Wodele fumes. "And that's just not true. Period."
Says Diaz: "The truth is that the police had stopped granting passes to ground zero right before the trip. They weren't issuing them anymore. You could only get one if you were attached to a VIP delegation, like Pataki's. So in the end everyone can pass the buck. Ventura's office can point at ABC, ABC can point at Pataki's office, and Pataki's people can point to the police."
"I believe the governor's anger was real," concludes WCCO's Kessler. "He was angry to be challenged. He was angry that someone would say things about him back home. He was, in my view, embarrassed that this was happening in front of Governor Pataki, the New York media, and the national media. And I think he was upset that his wife was in tears the day before at the press conference. All of this combined, in a highly emotional time, to create an explosion."
Righteous or not, Ventura's rage, and not the incident itself, is what has turned the New York trip into the media flap that won't die. Not long after the confrontation with Diaz, Ventura vowed to stop speaking to local reporters. His office, which briefly ceased publishing his daily schedule altogether, has since released details of the governor's workday only sporadically--ostensibly for security reasons. "I do all my speaking engagements. I just don't broadcast them to the media," Ventura told Minnesota Public Radio on October 23. "If the media knows it, so do the terrorists and [Osama] bin Laden."