Gov.-elect Sarah Sanders didn’t talk much with the Arkansas press during her campaign because she didn’t want to and didn’t think it was necessary. She was right, as the results showed.
Will things change now that’s she’s governor? Probably not that much.
In her Arkansas PBS debate, Sanders said that while having a free press is important, “When they don’t live up to their end of the bargain, it forces some of us to go outside of the box … I’ve been to all 75 counties taking my message directly to the people of Arkansas because I know more than anybody that sometimes you have to go directly to the people and cut out the middleman and the bias in which they are going to present your message.”
Sanders’ argument was understandable given her experiences as former President Trump’s press secretary, where her interactions with the White House press corps could be contentious. She also was vilified on social media and lampooned by “Saturday Night Live.”
But in her campaign, Sanders wasn’t “forced” to avoid reporters because of unfair coverage. Instead, she made a political decision to do it. As the heavy favorite to be elected, it wasn’t worth taking a risk that comes with talking to a reporter, and with the millions of campaign dollars she raised, she didn’t need free publicity.
She knew that in these divided times where everyone has already made up their minds and chosen sides, it wouldn’t have made much difference, anyway. She got 63 percent of the vote. Her Democratic opponent, Chris Jones, freely talked with reporters and ended up with 35 percent.
At one point in her debate answer, Sanders said, “I’ve engaged with the press, and I’ll continue to do so.”
It will be interesting to see what that will look like. She hasn’t been making press appearances in Arkansas since she was elected, though she was interviewed by Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Monday.
In contrast to Sanders, Gov. Asa Hutchinson often holds news conferences, and he’ll stop to answer questions after public appearances. Reporters do sometimes ask him challenging questions, but the tone is not hostile and the relationships are cordial.
The Arkansas press, after all, is not exactly CNN. It’s a small group of not-famous and not-rich state reporters, along with local reporters who focus on local news and mostly cover the governor when he or she comes to town. They’re normal people doing their jobs.
If Sanders chooses, she can “cut out the middleman” as governor just as she did as a candidate. The Constitution guarantees a free press but doesn’t require governors to talk to reporters. She could limit her communications mostly to public appearances, social media, interviews with friendly national outlets and press releases. The Arkansas press would quote her comments and her tweets.
Four years from now, if she wants to be, she’ll still be re-elected. In fact, on Tuesday, she announced she had already hired her senior advisor for her 2026 re-election campaign and transferred more than $2.5 million to the effort.
Sanders is right that reporters should be fair and respectful. If we’re so smart, why aren’t we governor?
At the same time, reporters have a constitutional duty to do more than just repeat what a politician says in a way that meets their approval. Otherwise, we really are just middlemen.
Giving the public useful information often requires some digging. Covering a press conference at the Capitol is kind of fun and easy, but a vibrant press must do more. Arkansas’ strong Freedom of Information Act requires government officials to produce paperwork if asked. It’s a tool that should be used, and not just by reporters.
When I was editor of the Malvern Daily Record in the 1990s, candidates would drop by my office and talk for 45 minutes. They wanted the local coverage, and I would give it to them because it would fill space and because I thought I had a duty to help them communicate with the voters.
Those were the days. Elected officials’ communication strategies have changed dramatically.
Reporters will have to adapt to those changes. We’ve got a job to do, whether or not the elected officials make it easy.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 18 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.