Ted Stevens’ Uneasy Relations with Journalists and Journalism – One Reporter’s View

By Joel Southern, former Washington, DC correspondent for the Alaska Public Radio Network

”How can you stand to cover that guy?”

I can’t begin to count the number of times fellow reporters and others asked me some form of that question during the 19 years or so that I covered Sen. Ted Stevens. To call him irascible would be a gross understatement. There were times when he, by his own admission, could be a ”mean, miserable S.O.B.” – even to folks who were otherwise friendly to him. And he often channeled his comic book alter ego, The Incredible Hulk, when dealing with my ilk, particularly reporters for national news organizations that only paid attention to Stevens when he said or did something controversial or when he got mired in ethical or legal problems.

There were times when Stevens – quite frankly – was a royal pain in the rear-end to cover. But those of us who reported for Alaska news organizations also got to see a different side of him. We frequently sat down and talked with Stevens at length and in settings in which he was more at-ease than he was during the crazy, jam-packed Tuesday-Thursday work week typical of the U.S. Senate. Sure, even in those sessions, he could be cantankerous. But we also got to see him as a smart, wily, thoughtful and even funny person – he often used wry humor and even cracked jokes. It was also during those sessions that I came to marvel at what Stevens had done and who he had known or met during his long public life. For me, it was like being just one degree of separation from a fairly big slice of history that spanned more than 50 years.

In my view, reporters and Stevens had a complicated love-hate co-dependence. For us, he was a fantastic catalyst for news (particularly when he reached the pinnacle of his power in the Senate), even though it often was tough to deal with him and the methods he used to control information about what he was doing. As for Stevens, he craved good press and the recognition that could bring for the actions he took in behalf of Alaska and his other legislative interests. But, more often than not, he expected to get the shaft from reporters, so he was wary of dealing with us.

I think Stevens’ notion of how he ideally wanted Alaska news organizations to relate to him was formed back during the push for statehood, when he was Interior Secretary Fred Seaton’s pointman on the issue. Because of Stevens’ ties to Fairbanks, he was very close to News-Miner publisher Bill Snedden. And Stevens’ views of statehood and future resource development in Alaska resonated with those of long-time Anchorage Times chief Robert Atwood. In fact, Atwood’s daughter was an assistant to Stevens at the Interior Department, and one of the tactics Stevens used to push statehood was to have canned editorials written up and shopped out to newspapers nationwide. The two Alaska newsmen supported Stevens’ efforts to get other newspaper editorial pages and publishers on board. Sec. Seaton himself had come from the newspaper business, so his connections also helped get those editorials published.

On numerous occasions when Stevens thought he was getting too much flak from news organizations, I heard him refer back to the good old days when he thought of himself and the Alaska media as being on the same team. He felt particular animus against the Anchorage Daily News. During the years I covered Stevens, his litany of grievances against the ADN and some of its editors and reporters was long. He did not like the way the ADN covered and critiqued his efforts to open the Arctic Refuge coastal plain to oil development, to halt curbs on timber harvesting in the Tongass National Forest and to push a host of other contentious federal-state issues. The complaints only got louder and more bitter when the ADN raised questions about Stevens’ ethics and doggedly reported on the Bill Allen-VECO scandal, which ultimately knocked Stevens off his political throne. There seemed to be a personal element to Stevens’ raw feelings about the ADN because, as a private practice lawyer back in the 1960s, he had helped handle legal issues when Larry and Kay Fanning purchased the newspaper and developed a friendship with them. While Stevens did not always agree with the views published in the ADN, he had a more beneficent view of it when Fannings were in charge. But his attitude about the ADN soured after it was bought by the McClatchy newspaper chain in 1979.

Like most politicians, Stevens probably would have preferred for all of us in the news media just to reprint his press releases or pull sound bites from canned recorded statements he made. Of course, that is not what good, professional news organizations do and, at the end of the day, he understood that. I think what Stevens wanted most of all from reporters was a sense that we had done our homework, that we tried to understand why he pursued the goals he pursued, and that he felt we were treating him fairly. If he respected a reporter and felt he was being treated fairly, he was willing to engage in give-and-take.

I think one of Stevens’ favorite sparring partners in the press was David Whitney, a former McClatchy Newspapers reporter who was the ADN’s Washington correspondent when I started as APRN’s DC reporter. Whitney was an extremely smart and resourceful reporter who had a knack for rooting out stories about what Stevens was doing, often before the senator was ready for that information to be made public. On one occasion, Whitney was in a toilet stall when Stevens happened to walk into the same restroom, talking with another person about a hush-hush topic. Whitney quickly started taking notes and got himself a good news story. On another occasion, Whitney was pursuing a contentious story and needed a comment from Stevens. He finally caught up with the senator on the US Capitol steps, where Stevens was waiting to have his picture taken. Whitney called out to get Stevens attention, and Stevens flipped Whitney a middle finger in return – just as the photographer snapped the picture. According to aides, the photo remained in Stevens files a long time. When David, after many years, decided to move to another beat, Stevens had a little going-away ceremony in S-128, an ornate Senate Appropriations Committee hearing room in the Capitol. Stevens had hoped to give David a print of the photo as a gag gift. Aides could not find it, so instead David got a box containing a glove, which had all but the middle finger folded back.

Stevens also gained respect for me and my reporting, and that got me through some tricky situations with the senator – including a couple of times when he got angry with me for reporting exactly what he said, in his own recorded words.

Back in the mid-1990s, the congressional delegation got into a big fight with the U.S. Forest Service over timber harvesting levels in the Tongass Forest and long-term timber supply contracts for two southeast Alaska pulpmills. When Ketchikan began feeling the impact of the timber harvesting curbs, the delegation looked at ways to shift Forest Service administrative offices from Juneau to Ketchikan. After a hearing one day, I talked to Stevens and found out that he was also thinking about trying to move the Coast Guard’s Alaska regional headquarters to Ketchikan. I recorded the interview and then sent it to colleagues in Juneau. When Juneau officials heard what Stevens had said, they got angry, immediately called Stevens’ office in DC and raised a ruckus. Stevens backed off, and he laid low from me for a while. After several days, I saw him at a news conference on another issue, and he warily approached. He pointed at my microphone and said, ”That thing gets me into trouble.” I didn’t respond to that out loud, but thought, ”No, Senator Stevens. It was your mouth got you into trouble – not my microphone.” After that, things got back to normal, and we moved on.

There was another, more serious, time when Stevens froze out me and other Alaska reporters in D.C. – again, for reporting what he said. It came in October of 2003, at a time when Stevens was trying to bar Alaska tribes from directly receiving court, law enforcement and housing funds and also trying to find out if there were any very small “ghost villages” fraudulently receiving federal funds. Except for a couple of tribes, Stevens had been opposed to federal recognition of others in Alaska stretching back to his work on statehood in the 1950s, and he was outraged by the formal listing of more than 200 tribes by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Ada Deer during the Clinton Administration.

During a sit-down with us one day, a colleague from another news organization asked Stevens about efforts by tribal sovereignty advocates to set up tribal courts in rural villages and whether tribal and state courts could co-exist. Stevens replied, ”It’s a very difficult thing. The road they’re on now is the road of destruction of statehood because the Native population is increasing at a much greater rate than the non-Native population. I don’t know if you realize that. And they want to have total jurisdiction over anything that happens in a village without regard to state law and without regard to federal law. Very serious, but people seem to laugh it off and say, ‘There goes Stevens again, he’s picking a fight with the Native people of Alaska.’ Not so at all. I’m trying to give them protection of the American system.”

But after he said that, I sat there and thought to myself something like, ”Does he really mean that, and does he understand how that’s going to sound to a lot of the Alaska Native community?” I did not for a moment believe that Stevens was racist toward Alaska Natives – over and over again during his time in public office, he had done many things to help them. But I also thought that what he said was newsworthy. So, I went back to my office, called colleagues in Anchorage and asked them to assess whether they did too. They did – and that set off a fight with Stevens that lasted for weeks.

After APRN aired Stevens’ comments, some tribal sovereignty advocates got angry and lashed out at Stevens. A Native woman who worked for an Alaska Native/rural village advocacy group and who had her own long record of service to Native causes told media outlets that the comments sounded racist, though she stopped short of calling Stevens himself a racist. Even so, Stevens got angry about it, and the woman’s employer, apparently out of fear of retaliation from Stevens, fired her in a matter of days. Stevens then cut off me and the rest of the D.C.-based press corps and set out to excoriate anyone and everyone he thought was accusing him of being racist. In a recorded speech to the annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives, he strongly defended his record of Native advocacy. He said the accusation of racism was a ”stain on his soul” and that being ”called ‘racist’ after more than 50 years of dedicated service to Alaskans, particularly Alaska Natives, is something I will not forget.” He repeated his concerns about footing the bill for tribal sovereignty in Alaska, saying ”It is just not possible to fund 231 separate villages as tribes.”

It seemed as though Stevens’ filibuster against the Alaska press corps in D.C. was never going to end. He was adamant, but I felt that I and APRN were justified in putting his comments on the air. Stevens often used strong, over-the-top rhetoric – he would just let it rip and not think about or care about the consequences. This was a case in which I believed that people deserved to hear what he had said and that he needed to be held accountable for his words. (The one thing I regret is that the Alaska Native woman who dared to comment about them was fired.) But then came a turning point. Stevens backed away from pushing his proposed curbs on tribal funding and instead lent his support to the concept of a federal/state/Native commission to assess rural Alaska justice and law enforcement issues. And, to his credit, he got over his anger and once again opened his door to me and the other D.C.-based reporters.

Reporting on Stevens became both difficult and interesting when he was under federal investigation for corruption allegations stemming from VECO chief and one-time friend, Bill Allen. Stevens was hounded daily by reporters from TV networks and newspapers nationwide. Phalanxes of reporters pursued a tight-lipped Stevens as he made his way down the hallways of the Capitol and the Senate office buildings. He frequently used restricted-access hallways and stairways to avoid reporters. When he did talk, he put on his old trial lawyer’s hat. He used the legal defense process and legalistic lingo to dodge questions about whether he had been called before a grand jury, was expecting indictments and – fundamentally – whether he had done anything wrong. He stuck very close to his “no comment” regime, but a time or two he got so fed up with the questioning that he said things that scared the wits out of his lawyers.

The situation put the D.C.-based Alaska press corps in a bind. The corruption investigation was just about the only thing that other reporters wanted him to talk about. We wanted to ask him about it too – but he was also deeply involved in a host of other issues of interest to our listeners, viewers and readers. If we asked too much about the corruption investigation, we ran the risk of torpedoing our chances of talking to him about those other things. At one point, Stevens became so anxious about it all that, at least for a while, he carried a small recorder around to record what reporters asked him. That happened to me one day. I caught him going from the Capitol to a Senate office building because I wanted to talk to him about something completely different than the corruption investigation. He agreed to talk, but stood there recording me as I recorded my interview with him.

There remains in my mind a question as to whether Ted Stevens might have pursued libel/slander/defamation claims against news organizations or individuals if he had been cleanly acquitted of the corruption charges by the jury at his federal court trial. During one session that I and McClatchy/ADN reporter Erika Bolstad had with him in November of 2007, he seemed to suggest he was pondering it. ”Your papers print those people who have been convicted and my son’s name and mine at the same time. You know, as far as the public is concerned, it’s all the same bale of wax. Now, I’m not going to comment on that bale of wax. But we’ve been included in a way that – I hope people understand the laws, that are doing it. Because, when it’s all over, some people are going to have to account for what they’ve said, and what they’ve charged us with,” he said. But he also refused to elaborate when we tried to get him to explain what he meant.

Audio Clip: Reporters Erika Bolstad and Joel Southern interview Senator

Despite the tough and frustrating times I had covering Sen. Stevens, it was a fascinating experience all in all. When I was just about ready to leave my job with APRN and Washington, D.C. in 2008, I sent a handwritten note to him. In essence, it said that, while not every day covering him had been a joy, it had been a great experience for me because I had learned much about the Congress, Alaska, the nation and the world.

And, for that, I will always be grateful to Ted Stevens.