For a public official in crisis, there is no better barometer of distress than the tone and content of media coverage. Moreover, it’s axiomatic that once the late-night comics lay into you, you know you’re in serious trouble.
Connecticut doesn’t have its own late-night TV hosts. The closest thing we have to Conan O’Brien is WNPR’s wit extraordinaire, Colin McEnroe. But he works in afternoon public radio and rarely talks politics anymore.
Connecticut does, however, have political cartoonists — which brings us to the subject of House Speaker Chris Donovan, whose bid for Connecticut’s 5th-district congressional seat was recently derailed by a money-laundering scandal that resulted in the arrest of his campaign finance director in an elaborate FBI sting.
Both of the state’s preeminent cartoonists have attacked the candidate with glee. After Donovan’s evasive presser last week, the Courant’s Bob Englehart penned a withering caricature depicting reporters pounding on a bespectacled loud “speaker” that did nothing in return except repeat Donovan’s mantra like a broken record: “No one has bought my influence (click), no one has bought my influence (click) …”
Englehart followed with a June 11 cartoon depicting Connecticut politics as a planet with a shiny side and a slimy side dripping with puke-green ick from the Donovan campaign.
Meanwhile, over at Hearst Connecticut newspapers, Pulitzer Prize winner Matt Davies, whose cartoon page is aptly called “Ouch,” took aim at Donovan’s claim of leadership and conviction, with the kite of the scandal lifting him away from his speakership and his claim to managerial acumen.
Coverage in the non-satirical media hasn’t been much better for Donovan. The Courant has been particularly aggressive, breaking a number of stories related to the identities of the unidentified co-conspirators listed in the arrest affidavit of Donovan’s finance director, Robert Braddock Jr.
And the Courant’s editorial board published three scathing pieces, including one suggesting the candidate was either complicit in the fundraising chicanery or showed “woeful judgement” in running for Congress and serving as speaker at the same time. Meanwhile, McEnroe and hard-hitting political columnist Kevin Rennie weigh in regularly, both in print and on their blogs.
The Torrington Register Citizen was primed and ready to tackle the scandal, having already established a separate website to cover the 5th-district congressional race. Matt DiRienzo, group editor of the paper and its sister publications in Connecticut, blasted Donovan, a former labor union organizer, for his purported “betrayal of Connecticut’s working families.”
Both online news sites that cover the state, CTNewsJunkie and the CTMirror, haven’t been slouches in covering this scandal either. Veteran political reporters Christine Stuart and Mark Pazniokas have worked their respective sources, cultivated over years of roaming the halls of the Capitol.
The state’s National Public Radio affiliate, WNPR, has reported daily on the events of the scandal, most notably a reporters’ roundtable last week. Over at WTIC, it’s been entertaining to hear convicted felon and former Gov. John Rowland dance around the subject, tainted as he is by his own criminal deeds. I only get the chance to listen to Rowland for half an hour on the way home from the office but I’ve yet to hear him say anything about the alleged corruption in the Donovan campaign. I assume he doesn’t talk about it at all — both because it would be awkward and also because he’s agreed not to comment directly on the 5th-district campaign following the revelation that he was consulting for Lisa Wilson-Foley, a GOP candidate in that race, while being paid through a company run by her husband.
Last weekend, the state’s TV talk shows were all-Donovan-all-the-time. Both the Stan Simpson Show and The Real Story with Laurie Perez featured all-star panels that included some of the best journalists and criminal defense attorneys in Connecticut. On Face The State, host Dennis House scored an interview with Donovan himself or, as House described him in the set-up, “the embattled House Speaker.” But the candidate refused to comment on the investigation and tried to use the statewide TV platform to repeat his mantra that the people of Connecticut need him in Washington and he is still focused on “helping families.” Finally, an exasperated House asked Donovan what happens to his campaign if he gets arrested.
“Dennis, you’re really jumping there,” a bristling Donovan replied. “I’ve done nothing wrong and we’ll leave it at that.”
As Courant Capitol bureau chief Chris Keating observed in his Stan Simpson appearance, the frustrating thing for journalists isn’t that Donovan won’t comment on the investigation. That’s to be expected. But when asked why Braddock was hired in the first place, Donovan and his surrogates reply in the same way.
“And the answer is, ‘We’re not talking about the investigation,’” Keating complained. “Well, that’s really got nothing to do with the investigation — why you hired the guy — so there’s no answer.”
If the arrest and eventual conviction of Braddock is all she wrote, then it will be a relatively quiet summer. But speculation has centered on the expansion of the federal investigation and that more arrests are likely, in which case the media coverage will intensify. As Keating told Simpson, “Everybody in the press room’s working hard on it, basically every single day.”
My own verdict on the coverage: tough but fair. Odds are that Donovan could have avoided this entire scandal if he had simply resigned from the legislature to run for Congress. An FBI plant would not have approached the campaign to buy Donovan’s influence at the Capitol because Donovan would have had none to sell. Donovan himself made the decision to hang on to his speakership and legislative duties — and for that, he must be held accountable.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company.