Friday night the new downtown restaurant Willawaw was the place to be for Alaska’s politicos. Senator Lisa Murkowski sent out online invites calling the event “An evening with friends” and noting that food and drink would be provided to all. People arrived, political schmoozing went into high-gear by all in attendance, and then finally the speakers began.
First up was Olympian Rosie Fletcher took the stage to say a
few words and then introduced the woman herself, Alaska’s senior Senator Lisa Murkowski. The Senator spoke of how long her trip back to Alaska from D.C. was before getting to the unadvertised, but clear reason for the event, the Senator had officially filed her papers to run for re-election as Alaska’s senior senator, and the crowd cheered.
Depending on where you get your information that was either headline news or not newsworthy at all. Anchorage TV station KTVA cut away from their newscast to broadcast several minutes of the Senator’s remarks live. They then went on to spend several more minutes discussing the development and brand new polling data on the Senator’s popularity with local pollster Ivan Moore. On KTVA the news was treated as THE news of the day.
If you follow other media outlets you might not have even known the event ever happened. A review of KTUU’s 6PM newscast, reporters’ twitter feeds, and the station’s political website shows no mention of the event or announcement, NONE AT ALL.
For their part the Alaska Dispatch News did have some coverage, but not much. It consisted mostly of sending a photographer and this small blurb by Tegan Hanlon.
So why did KTVA have such wall-to-wall coverage including advanced knowledge of an unpublicised announcement, polling data, and live event coverage when other media outlets appear to have been either unaware of or largely uninterested in that same announcement?
Let’s go back to the beginning of the evening. After the crowd had gathered and the Senator arrived, but before Fletcher spoke, long-time Anchorage newsman John Tracy took to the stage. He said before the event began he needed everyone to gather tightly around the stage and hold signs so the the event would look better for the cameras. He also encouraged the crowd to take selfies and post them to social media with the hashtag #LISA2016.
Tracy has been a longtime supporter of Murkowski’s, including serving as a spokesman for her 2010 campaign. There was nothing inappropriate about Tracy’s 2010 role in that campaign. He had left KTUU and does not appear to have held any position in the electronic or print media. As such, ethically he was completely free to support or work for whichever political activities he saw fit, without any grounds for criticism.
2015 may be a different story. In 2012 telecommunications company GCI hired Tracy to help them overhaul KTVA to compete with KTUU. Just last month KTVA announced they were expanding Tracy’s role to include on-camera duties. Tracy is now not only involved in the managerial side, helping to brand and market the station, he is instantly their most recognizable on-camera personality.
In an interview Monday afternoon, Tracy said Murkowski’s campaign is also once again a client of his company Brilliant Media Strategies, as is KTVA.
So, does Tracy’s involvement in both KTVA and Murkowski’s campaign explain the wide disparity in coverage between KTVA and KTUU? In essence, has KTVA become the station of Murkowski and Murkowski the candidate of KTVA?
“Not at all. That’s a really big stretch to make” Tracy said. He said he gave KTVA no more information about the event than any other station received. He also said he didn’t know until I told him that Ivan Moore had any polling data to release or that he had been on KTVA, saying Moore wasn’t doing any work for the Murkowski campaign.
Tracy said he didn’t know why KTUU chose not to cover the story. That makes two of us. A call to KTUU seeking explanation for their decision went unreturned.
According to Tracy he and station management have had long discussions over his role. As a consultant, he would only work branding and marketing the station and have no input on day-to-day news gathering. The new on-air role would be strictly opinion based commentary, no news reporting, and the content of the commentaries would be restricted to issues not related to his advertising firm’s clients. He said there would be “No talking about Lisa” and “No touching the gas [AKLNG] pipeline because ConocoPhillips is a client.”
So was this simply a case of one station making a decision that a story was the biggest thing happening that day, while another didn’t view it as newsworthy at all? It’s possible, but Tracy’s involvement with both KTVA and Murkowski does create an appearance that a tighter relationship may exist.
Tracy has a long track record and sterling reputation in Alaska journalism, so a benefit of the doubt isn’t out of line. Mr. Tracy, Sen. Murkowski, and KTVA management would, however, be wise to be mindful of their joint relationships. While Murkowski is alone in the race there is no one to complain, but once she gets an opponent this will almost certainly be an issue that rears it head..