I’ve been surprised by the number of times I’ve heard White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders answer questions at press briefings with the words “I think.”
Reading through press briefing transcripts, I’ve found that response dozens of times -- even when she’s directly asked about the president’s position on an issue.
I can’t remember ever getting an “I think” response when I asked about the governor’s position.
When I ask a spokesperson about the governor’s position, I don’t really care what about the staffer “thinks.” I’m interested in what the governor thinks or what his office actually is doing or planning.
If I ever got an “I think” response, I’d probably respond, “I didn’t ask for your personal opinion, I asked for the governor’s position.”
This is more than a minor grammatical issue. When the spokesperson’s response to a question starts with “I think,” that person has dodged my ability to report it as the chief executive’s position.
But for most of my decades covering the statehouse, I encountered an approach by gubernatorial press aids far different from the combative environment I’ve seen from White House briefings.
Regularly, I found the governors’ press spokespersons tremendous in helping me understand the actual thoughts of Missouri’s chief executive.
I experienced that approach soon after I started covering the statehouse.
One of my assignments was to produce a weekly radio series on statehouse issues. As part of that effort, I’d regularly visit Gov. Warren Hearnes’ office to get his thoughts about that week’s topic.
But when I first approached the governor’s press secretary, Jerry Bryant, he quickly asked me why I was not asking the governor.
Then, without warning, he immediately hauled me into the governor’s personal office to ask my question.
I still remember my discomfort at being led, unprepared to query the state’s top official.
After that first visit, personal interviews with Hearnes became a regular part of my weekly schedule. He was so passionate about telling me his thoughts that at times he’d keep me sitting on the sofa next to him for longer than my schedule allowed.
His successor, Kit Bond, continued that approach with near-weekly news conferences that would last until reporters didn’t have anything more to ask.
Subsequent governors were equally accessible. And their communications directors went out their way to make sure we got what the governor was thinking or planning, rather than what the press aid “thought.”
Many of these communications directors had near full access to the governor and the governor’s meetings. So, they didn’t need to tell me “I think.” They knew exactly what the governor was thinking.
That was especially true of Gov. Mel Carnahan’s press aide, Chris Sifford.
“Soulmates” was how The Associated Press described their relationship after the fatal plane crash that cost Carnahan and Sifford their lives.
That close relationship was invaluable for reporters. Carnahan frequently gave us lengthy and rambling answers that left us unsure of what he meant.
But we always could go to Sifford. We were sure he would know exactly what the governor was trying to say. And as a former reporter, he knew how to provide clear, concise and factual answers.
But in more recent years, there has been a profound change in how reporters are handled by governors and their staff.
I fear we’re entering a new era for both our state and nation in which reporters are considered an enemy to be avoided rather than an asset that can help the public better understand what’s happening in their government.
Some public officials now avoid our uncomfortable questions by limiting their public appearances to media events or to social media where no questions can be asked.
The staggering amounts of undisclosed special interest money makes it easier to flood the public with one-sided advertising presentations.
A sign of this new era is the growing unresponsive answers we encounter.
And maybe another sign of this new culture is a spokesperson responding to reporters with “I think” rather than what the president thinks.
(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.)