What does the world’s second-ranked female tennis player have to do with Arkansas politics? A lot more with Sarah Huckabee Sanders than with Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The tennis player, Naomi Osaka, last week announced she would not talk to the press during the French Open, one of the sport’s four major tournaments. Her statement alluded to athletes’ mental health and reporters’ repetitive questions.
The tournament responded by announcing it would fine her, which wouldn’t make much difference to someone who made $55 million last year, more than any other female athlete in the world. The four major tournaments, including Wimbledon, also warned her that failing to talk to the press could result in her being defaulted from play.
Osaka responded by announcing she was withdrawing from the tournament, explaining further that she’s dealing with depression. Despite how her first statement sounded, this was not just about being tired of dumb questions. She’s struggling.
This was huge news, partly because the media loves to talk about itself and its changing place in the world – which, granted, this column is doing.
Much has changed in the past 15 years. Previously, traditional reporters were an indispensable part of the sports landscape. Athletes needed them as much as they needed athletes.
That’s no longer the case. Thanks to social media and the power that $55 million can give you, Osaka doesn’t have to answer a Tennis magazine reporter’s questions if she doesn’t want to. If she has anything to say, she can do it in ways she can control.
Her stand has shone a light on that reality. And it’s not just happening in sports.
As a candidate, Sarah Huckabee Sanders isn’t talking to Arkansas reporters right now. She doesn’t need the hassle or the publicity. She was already a celebrity through being President Donald Trump’s press secretary. In that job, she became a Republican hero by sparring with reporters until, like Osaka, she stopped participating in press conferences. She raised $5 million during the first two months of her candidacy. And of course, the media will talk about her anyway, as I’m doing now.
Gov. Hutchinson takes the opposite approach. He has made himself available to the press, almost to a fault. For a while he was giving daily press updates on the COVID-19 pandemic. But long before COVID-19, he met regularly with reporters.
In the middle of those two approaches is Sanders’ opponent, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. She has made herself available to the press, but not as often as Hutchinson and in more controlled circumstances.
At age 70, Hutchinson is a product of a different time, when politicians needed reporters as much as athletes did. He’s aware that times have changed and understands the power of social media, but he seems to appreciate what reporters do. He’s also had less combative experiences with the press than Sanders has, although Fox News’ Tucker Carlson gave him a hard time recently.
Sanders at age 38 and Rutledge at 45 are part of a generation where the press always has been just one more aspect of campaigning to manage, control, and overwhelm with money. Sanders’ dad, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, did not think highly of some reporters, as I learned during my two years of working on his communications staff at the Capitol.
The Founders included freedom of the press in the very First Amendment, right alongside speech and religion. It’s good that they did. We don’t want a world where public figures completely control their communications, presenting only a slick, sanitized, propagandized version of themselves.
For members of the press, in this age of polarization and controlled messages, it will be tempting to become mere commentators or, worse, partisan organs/outrage factories as some national media outlets have become, and some have long been. It’s a free market, and that stuff sells.
We can’t all do that. There are still reporters who practice good journalism, and they’re needed as much as ever. (Hint: Newspapers and local outlets are a good place to find them.)
They’ll have to keep doing their work and trust that the public will value it. It’s better to have too many questions – even if some are dumb and repetitive – than not enough.