WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Al Franken granted his first “extended national interview” since his election to Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, using the chance to talk health care policy while explaining why he’s been so silent to the media outside Minnesota.
I asked Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh two questions on this: Why now, and why Roll Call? As most any press secretary would, she declined to comment on her office’s media strategy. Here’s what reporters Shira Toeplitz and Emily Pierce wrote on that point:
Franken has come to his new public role slowly and deliberately. Franken’s office turns down anywhere from five to dozens of interview requests from national news outlets per week, and the freshman Senator has not done a single national television appearance since a brief press conference after he was sworn in. Even in agreeing to talk to Roll Call, Franken’s office insisted on keeping the topic limited primarily to health care.
He gives interviews to local media on a regular basis but has made an extra effort to stay out of the national spotlight despite passing bipartisan and sometimes controversial legislation such as the Jamie Leigh Jones amendment.
“There’s no question about that. … These events maybe have a little larger turnout and people pay a little closer attention because it’s me, and I’m aware of that obviously, but that’s why I pick my spots,” Franken said of how he carefully uses his celebrity status.
And a story “primarily on health care” is right up Franken’s alley.
Franken has expanded his public profile on health care reform in recent months, headlining a Families USA conference where he called for the House to pass the Senate’s health care bill if senators pledged to pass a fix later and speaking to NARAL Pro-Choice America on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
He offered an amendment to require that health insurers spend 85 percent of large-group-plan premiums (and 80 percent of small-group and individual premiums) on actual health care costs, the cost reform that joins an individual coverage mandate as the foundation of the Senate’s bill. He has also been a leading voice on the public option, standing up in caucus meetings to advocate for it and urging Senate leaders to put a public option up for a vote.
So that’s why now, but why Roll Call?
Full disclosure, before I continue: I used to work for Congressional Quarterly, which was purchased last year by the Economist Group (which owns Roll Call), so for a brief period of time my paycheck came from Roll Call.
Roll Call isn’t exactly a surprising choice. It is viewed as a “serious” publication on Capitol Hill, meaning that it likes to get into the proverbial weeds of public policy crafting. Its readership is primarily Washington policy wonks, thoe sort of people he’s looking to influence on health care.
My read on it is that Roll Call’s pitch and presence were the determining factors, but if one did a process of elimination, one might still come back to Roll Call as the Hill publication to appear in.
There are two other Capitol Hill papers, Politico and The Hill, along with the two widely read subscription-only insider tipsheets CongressDaily (owned by The Atlantic’s National Journal Group) and CQ Today (an offshoot of the CQ-Roll Call Group). And I would have been shocked if Franken agreed to put his first national interview behind a pay wall.
Both The Hill and Politico have run pieces that Franken’s office has bristled at — The Hill’s being a late-December profile of Franken that led by saying Franken “has begun to show the sharp-tongued side of his personality by ripping into GOP staffers behind the scenes.” And when Franken told Roll Call that reports of him confronting White House adviser David Axelrod over health care “were actually a little inaccurate, but not in a way that really matters that much. … It didn’t seem like I was standing up and yelling,” he’s talking about a Politico report.
That all being said, I think this was a case of right issue, right time — and reporters who didn’t pitch the “Hey, Al Franken is a comedian… and a senator!!!” story that has been done too many times to count.