He is no newsman, but he was on the radio.
Before prime time and the vice presidency and the pandemic, he was behind a studio microphone to host the “Washington Update With Mike Pence.” He was, in his words, “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” And for half an hour each day on WRCR-FM in the 1990s, he was honing a message that would later launch his career.
With the country in the grips of a global health crisis, Pence is on local airwaves again. A lot. The face of the coronavirus task force has been heard and seen on local radio and television across the country. He is on a regional media blitz.
The vice president has done 38 local hits since January, and it would be considered a pivot if he was not also talking almost daily to national news outlets. Pence has been everywhere during the pandemic, making it only half of a joke when his boss quipped that he doesn’t “think he sleeps anymore.”
It isn’t that Pence is looking for friendly press, Marc Short told RealClearPolitics. The vice president’s chief of staff says that the former talk show host has a soft spot for the smaller outlets and “understands the importance of communicating directly with the American people through their local TV anchors and radio hosts.” Closer to the ground, Short added, those journalists “understand how coronavirus and other issues are affecting their communities.”
When on the road, it means stepping aside for a sit-down exclusive with the local news. And when back in the Eisenhower Office Building, opposite the White House, it means squeezing a radio interview into an already packed schedule. On April 7, for instance, Pence did four radio interviews between a call with the National Federation of Independent Business and a task force meeting and a press briefing.
Each interview is unique but also somewhat the same. The vice president usually praises the host: “We are very, very grateful for the way you’ve gotten the word out.” He normally gives a shout-out to the state government: “We are working closely with your governor.” He always tries to be a voice of optimism and calm during a moment of chaos: “We will come back stronger than ever before.”
The questions hardly ever focus on the national controversies that have occasionally consumed the White House press corps. Instead, at the beginning of April, local interviewers wanted to know when their economies would be allowed to reopen and whether or not hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug often plugged by the president, actually works. Pence delivers an on-brand answer, seldom straying from administration messaging and always in dulcet Midwestern tones.
And the local hosts — from Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are appreciative. Those interviews end with thanks and usually with reciprocal offerings of God’s blessing. It is different, more intimate, than the fare offered by the national press.
“I wouldn’t call it cynicism necessarily, but they’re focused on the bigger picture,” Jeff Peake explained of the different coverage offered by local and national outlets. A political scientist and department chairman at Clemson University, Peake has studied how presidents tailor their messaging to local media markets, concluding that going local leads to better headlines.
“It’s a pretty well known that the national press does not give the president a lot of positive coverage,” Peake told RCP. The national reporter often offers a larger analysis in light of bigger trends. The local journalist, he says, focuses more on a description of what actually happened.
And those stories hit differently. Why? Well, it’s simple: The public trusts the journalist who lives in their neighborhood more than they believe the beat reporter several state lines away. “People believe their local news,” explained Martha Joynt Kumar, the director of the White House Transition Project, “and they believe it much more than they do their national news.”
Polling by Pew Research bears this out. According to a March 2019 survey, 71% of Americans said that they trusted the local news to report accurately. It is a big advantage over national outlets. According to Pew, during the pandemic 54% of Americans rate the national media’s response to the outbreak positively, hardly a passing grade but a bump over normal times.
The regional stories seldom bubble to the top of the national news cycle, but make no mistake, Kumar said, local media is no less consequential than Trump or Pence calling into “Fox & Friends” or Judge Jeanine. “You’re talking to an audience that is going to listen,” she said.
This is no secret, and White Houses since the Reagan administration have elevated the local press. “What presidents have tried to do to get around the national press is to go local,” Peake said. “It is all part of a going-public strategy.”
President George W. Bush admitted as much, complaining in 2001 that “what I try to say in Washington gets filtered … so I have found it is best to travel the country.”
Pence has been jetting around the country in recent months, touring factories and hospitals, encouraging first responders. He is counting masks and ventilators, not potential votes, ahead of 2020 and even 2024. Politics aren’t on his official radar. An aide said that the goal has always been to convey “task force updates and decision making” while offering “condolences to those who lost loved ones due to coronavirus.”
This works for the local guys, explained Tony Katz. The syndicated talk show host got his start on the Indianapolis airwaves and remains the closest thing to an on-air heir to the former vice president. He took Pence’s old time slot and recently turned the microphone around on the Indiana Republican during a late April interview.
Lessons learned in the studio and the governor’s mansion, Katz told RCP, have taught the vice president to meet people “where they live and breathe.” It is only natural, he insisted, for a local outlet to do the same and tailor questions to the interests of the audience. “There are too many people who are convinced that the macro view is the only view that matters. There are too many people who think that because New York or D.C. sees something a certain way that’s got to be the way it is,” Katz complained while defending a Midwestern perspective. “I don’t.”
He asked Pence about medical supplies and about the civil liberty concerns surrounding contact tracing and about whether or not the United States was prepared for the pandemic. “I mean, if that’s a softball question, well, then, that’s somebody else’s issue,” he said. “I think that’s the question that America wants to hear.”
And if his slice of America doesn’t hear the questions from him that they want asked, Katz said those listeners will let him know. Maybe they write. Maybe they call. Sometimes they stop him on the street. Accountability comes from angry listeners, he said. “People aren’t interested in gamesmanship; they’re interested in their lives. They take a look at coronavirus, and they ask themselves how is it affecting them? How is it affecting their jobs? And how is that affecting their kids’ futures?”
“‘Gotchas’ don’t get you anywhere,” he concluded while comparing his coverage to national news. “That’s the problem.” Meanwhile, it seems that local interviews have gotten the local talk show host turned vice president very far.