By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – For a politician, probably the only thing worse than making a public gaffe is making a public gaffe on a radio show when your staff has seen the questions in advance.
But that appears to be exactly what happened April 29 to Gov. Tom Corbett.
That day, Corbett was making his monthly appearance on “Ask The Governor,” a monthly show produced by Radio PA, a for-profit branch of WITF-FM, the national public radio station in Harrisburg. The show provides a platform for the governor to discuss political issues and answer questions lobbed by a pair of hosts.
As part of the show, listeners can submit questions via email, some of which are selected by the hosts and included in the show.
During the April 29 edition, Corbett was asked to address the state’s stubbornly low job growth.
After pointing out more people than ever are working in Pennsylvania and attributing slow job growth to a variety of economic factors, Corbett said part of the problem was drug use by Pennsylvanians.
“There are many employers that say, ‘We are looking for people, but we can’t find anybody who has passed a drug test,’” he said.
It was not one of Corbett’s best moments, and the sound bite bounced around state political news for a day before — pushed by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party’s communications team — liberal blogs picked it up and turned it into a national gaffe by a governor who has had his share of embarrassing moments plastered across the progressive talk shows.
But unlike some of Corbett’s other public missteps, on this occasion the governor stumbled through an answer to a question vetted by his staff.
Emails obtained by PA Independent through a state right-to-know request show a history of communications between the producers of “Ask The Governor” and top Corbett officials, including an apparent two-way deal to share questions that would be posed to the governor on-air.
Asked this week about that arrangement, Brad Christman, news director for Radio PA and the host of “Ask The Governor,” said the question that spurred Corbett’s response about drug use was not prompted by listeners’ emails.
He’s right. The question did not come up during the part of the show — about one-third of the hour-long program — expressly dedicated to listeners’ questions.
But a similar question was included in the list of questions submitted by Christman to the governor’s staff a few days before Corbett went on the air.
In the days leading up to the April 29 show, Corbett staffer Kirsten Page exchanged multiple emails with Christman, starting April 17, when Page asked about the upcoming show.
“Any questions for the April 29 show yet?” she asked.
The next day, Christman emailed Page a long list of questions submitted by listeners.
“Here’s what I’ve pulled out so far,” he wrote.
One of the questions included in that email came from a listener who basically re-wrote a Democratic talking point about the decline in job growth in Pennsylvania during Corbett’s time in office. Christman asked Corbett nearly the same question on the air.
After Corbett’s initial response, co-host Matt Paul followed up with a question — apparently his own – about the types of jobs employers were looking to fill. That’s when Corbett wandered with his comments about employers who “can’t find anybody who can pass a drug test.”
On May 1, two days after Corbett’s appearance and gaffe, Christman emailed Page about the incident.
“As I’m sure you know, we did not push the story, aside from posting the video as usual,” Christman wrote May 1. “It exploded on its own.”
This week, Christman said the practice of giving the governor’s staff questions in advance predates Corbett’s time in office.
Radio PA has hosted the “Ask The Governor” program off-and-on since Gov. Bob Casey’s term in the early 1990s. It has worked with administrations on both sides of the aisle in an effort to give the people of Pennsylvania access to their governor, and it has been recognized as the “best public affairs program” by the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters for two years in a row.
“People in this state don’t have a direct line to the governor,” Christman said. “This is about the people getting answers to the questions they are asking.”
Christman said listeners sometimes ask about obscure topics, so giving the governor’s staff a list of questions helps to make sure the listeners can get answers.
“Radio PA has 100 percent editorial control,” Christman said. “I give the questions to the governor’s office so they can research and have him prepared.”
Kelly McBride, author of a recent book on journalism ethics and a senior scholar with the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school in Florida, said the general rule for reporters is not to share questions with a source in advance of an interview.
But good reporters will be able to follow-up and get truthful answers from sources even when the topics and questions are known in advance, she said. The example with Corbett seems to prove that point.
“I think that reveals that even when someone is prepared, it does not inhibit a good journalist from doing their job and getting a source to tip their hand or show their ignorance,” she said.
Christman said the questions are sent to Corbett’s staff as a courtesy, but the emails indicate Corbett’s team expects to receive them each month.
On Jan. 16, Page reached out to Christman about an upcoming appearance by Corbett on Radio PA.
“I haven’t received any questions from you yet,” she wrote. “Just checking in.”
Three minutes later, Christman responded to assure her the questions would come soon. The next day he emailed a list of questions that would be used for Corbett’s Jan. 25 guest spot on the “Ask The Governor” show.
Shortly after the show was taped, Page emailed Christman again because she was “wondering how questions came up this morning that I hadn’t read.”
She later concluded Christman had sent a second batch of questions, but that they were caught in her spam folder.
The next month, the same process played out, with Christman specifically noting he filtered out stuff he thought would require more research.
On Thursday, Page also defended the practice as being in the best interest of the listeners, so the governor can be prepared to respond to the questions on-air. Like Christman, Page said many of the listener-submitted questions are very specific in nature and require research in order to be answered on the show.
But couldn’t specific questions about constituents’ concerns be answered by the administration without going on a statewide radio show?
Page acknowledged that they could, but that the show has brought issues to the governor’s attention and helped the administration address some problems.
“The context of the show is to allow the listeners to ask questions of the governor,” she said. “In order to best serve the person asking the question, we do appreciate that they are willing to share some of the questions with us.”
Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.