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Heller retreats from scrutiny

Last week, Nevada reporter Jon Ralston went public with a problem he’s been having with the press operation of U.S. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada.

Heller, who is unfortunately becoming known for attention-getting measures with no chance of passage instead of doing the hard work of writing serious legislation, is apparently peeved at Ralston for throwing a spotlight on those work habits.

“Granted, I have been quite critical of Heller’s performance at times,” Ralston wrote last week. “I think his ‘No Budget No Pay’ idea, seemingly the centerpiece of his legislative agenda, is hollow pap. I observed that his support for a so-called congressional exemption on Obamacare, one that doesn’t actually exist, is a terrible form of pandering to the lowest common denominator. Nevada’s junior senator often seems intent on sacrificing long-term effectiveness for short-term political gain.”

So Heller’s cutting Ralston off.

“For months now, Heller’s chief of staff, Mac Abrams, and his chief spokeswoman, Chandler Smith, have refused to even respond to emails from my producer, Dana Gentry, or me,” Ralston wrote last week. “But it’s worse than that: Heller’s office has taken the unprecedented step of removing us from the blast news release list sent to all Nevada media so we are not immediately privy to his positions on issues.”

I have to say this left me speechless. Think about it: If they are doing what Ralston claims, Heller’s press people have stopped sending to Ralston copies of Heller’s own news releases, which are daily notices of what Heller is doing written by Heller’s staff members (who, by the way, are paid with tax money). In other words, Ralston is being cut off from copies of material written in a way that puts Heller in the best possible light. How brutal. How will Ralston ever get along without pro-Heller propaganda? He will have to form conclusions without getting the Heller spin on things. Who exactly are the Heller folks hurting here?

What Heller and his staff are doing is a variant on playing favorites among reporters, which is usually singling out certain reporters they like for special positive treatment. They are singling out one reporter of whom they disapprove for special negative treatment. Ralston is Heller’s unfavorite.

As secretary of state, Heller was known for openness, both in symbolism — his door just inside the front entrance of the state capitol was left open — and in practice. He was accessible and pretty candid.

Since running for federal office, he has become known for reclusiveness, for dashing to the right on issues, for defensiveness, and for being out of touch with his supporters. His fellow Nevada senator, Harry Reid, has had to cut back his contacts with locals since he became majority leader because his workload and responsibilities take up more of his time. Yet even he has been more accessible than Heller.

Moveover, his staffers seem not to realize one of the benefits of having reporters out there who are critical. It’s one of the jobs of people like Ralston to subject the claims, actions and policies of politicians to scrutiny so that the public doesn’t get stuck with bad information, unworkable programs and uncooked policies. But people like Ralston also serve a purpose for politicians. I’ve long had a theory that public figures are at their best when they are pushed.

I once moderated a debate between Richard Bryan, running for re-election as governor, and his challenger, Patty Cafferata. Cafferata and two wire service reporters — Cy Ryan and Brendan Riley — questioned Bryan rigorously on his policies. He was taken aback. He responded with direct, to-the-point answers instead of his customary indirection. A lot of people in politics believed he was at his most effective on that occasion.

There is a famous story about Robert Kennedy campaigning in the 1968 Indiana presidential primary and facing a hostile audience of conservative medical students. He took them on, challenged their assumptions and won them over.

Of course, political staffers must have a certain level of faith in their leader and that leader must have a certain amount of confidence in himself to get into those situations. Otherwise, it’s best to shield themselves from tough reporters.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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