The story has gone from bad to worse for Meg Whitman. On the same day that a new poll shows the California-governor hopeful’s lead disappearing, state reporters have begun amplifying their complaints that Whitman was simply too isolated from the media. And that’s after she pumped almost $60 million of her own money into the race.
The gripes are accurate. Whitman has agreed to only a handful of interviews, most with conservative columnists or ideologically declared reporters. She declined endorsement meetings with all of the state's major papers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, which published a punchy editorial today titled “What Meg Whitman’s Money Can’t Buy” that cautioned against a candidate who won’t answer tough questions. In January, in one of several bizarre standoffs, she declined reporters at a staged campaign event any face time. And when my colleague Andrew Romano profiled Whitman and a handful of other CEOs turned politicians for a story in February, Whitman’s press staff continually claimed that the candidate was simply too busy for a quick phone interview. Over a two-week period.
We could have expected this from Whitman. As the former CEO of eBay, her main credential—and the theme of her campaign—is that she’s run a successful business by cutting waste, holding people accountable, and striving for excellence, exactly the antidote for California’s current state of fiscal paralysis. Yet the comparison isn’t exact, or in some ways even comparable. Despite all its quirks, politics isn’t business; it’s politics. Accountability has a very different definition in the board room than it does in the state house.
That’s where the wheels continue to come off Whitman’s bid. Usually, the most effective way for a company in crisis (like, say, Goldman Sachs or Massey Energy) to change the public narrative is to hire a PR firm to plant some positive stories and sideline unfriendly reporters. Sometimes it’s also a good idea to create your own news media, by putting out glossy newsletters that look like newsmagazines, or creating a “news portal” online that’s actually run by your campaign press flacks. Whitman’s faux pas was that she has tried all of the above. It may have worked at eBay, but in a statewide campaign in the nation's most populous state with a boat load of problems, the bad press keeps coming.
Not answering reporters’ questions tends to annoy reporters. But trying to subvert any critical questioning with your own “Meg News Channel” just looks shady. And that's a problem no amount of screaming with your hands over your ears can solve.