Less than a month after his election, meanwhile, at a meeting of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association (MNPA), Patrick took the unusual step of criticizing the press’s coverage of his campaign, urging those present to “Put their cynicism down.” It’s hard to argue with Patrick’s description of the press — and if his speech was aimed at creating a me-and-you-versus-the-media dynamic, it may prove to be a savvy PR move. Then again, if you’ve experienced Patrick’s earnestness up close, it’s hard not to wonder if the governor really believes his shtick — if he thinks he can reform the press at the same time he reforms the state.
Then, on December 19, Patrick announced that Nancy Fernandez Mills would be his new communications director. Fernandez Mills’s résumé includes stints at NBC and WBZ-TV, but she played no public role in Patrick’s campaign, and is unknown to many journalists who covered the governor’s race. On December 21, in his most recent press availability, Patrick cut off the Q-and-A after seven minutes, a distinct change from his ask-’em-if-you-got-’em approach during the campaign. And one of the central proposals of the 33-page report recently released by Patrick’s Civic Engagement Working Group — “Find ways to take government directly to the people” — can be read as a tacit call to bypass intermediaries in the press. There’s a national precedent for this kind of thing: witness Patrick’s former boss, Bill Clinton, who remained wildly popular with the public despite a fairly tormented relationship with journalists. Still, even if Patrick turns his campaign organization into a vehicle for carrying his message directly to die-hard supporters in the coming years, the local press is going to mold his image for the rest of the state.
Add it all up, and it’s hard to say what exactly the Massachusetts press corps should expect when Patrick takes office. This uncertainty, in turn, seems to have journalists feeling somewhat uneasy. “I’m sure he realizes that part of his formula for success was his accessibility, both to the public and to the public through us,” says NECN’s Jim Braude. “One of the most important ways you stay in touch, in an active way, with your constituency is through us. And my hope is that we and he end up on the same page, not substantively, but in terms of communication.”
Joe Sciacca, the Herald’s deputy managing editor for news, is quick to praise Patrick consultants Doug Rubin and Larry Carpman (who helped devise media strategy for the campaign) and new hires Kyle Sullivan and Cyndi Roy (who’ll be Patrick’s press secretary and deputy press secretary, respectively). But he’s also concerned about the implications of Patrick’s MNPA speech. “It seems like he’s kind of pouring the foundation for a media strategy that essentially marginalizes the press — that says the people are on Deval’s side, and it doesn’t matter what the cynical press corps says,” Sciacca says. “That’s a risky strategy. I think Deval comes into office with a relatively fragile favorability rating — his numbers fluctuated between 50 and 60 percent favorable in polling done in the final weeks of the campaign — and we’ve seen his favorability slip pretty quickly when he’s under intense scrutiny.”