Landrieu on the Line

Two Louisiana political reporters on why James O'Keefe's Landrieu story wasn't news to them

When ACORN provocateur James O’Keefe and three accomplices were arrested at Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office last week in the course of “maliciously interfering with a telephone system operated and controlled by the United States of America,” according to an FBI affidavit, a lot of people wondered what it was about Mary Landrieu and her telephones that merited O’Keefe’s interest.

In a post on on Friday and again on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Monday night, O’Keefe said that his intent was to determine whether Landrieu was intentionally avoiding constituent phone calls during the late-2009 run-up to the Senate health reform vote. “I decided to investigate why a representative of the people would be out of touch with her constituents for “weeks” because her phones were broken,” he wrote. “In investigating this matter, we decided to visit Senator Landrieu’s district office – the people’s office – to ask the staff if their phones were working.”

O’Keefe wasn’t the only one who had been investigating the matter. In fact, by the time he showed up in Landrieu’s office in late January, a couple of Louisiana political reporters had already examined the allegations that the senator had been ignoring her constituents. We spoke to two of them to find out why the Landrieu phone complaints never made the headlines in their respective newspapers.

Jonathan Tilove, who covers Lousiana’s congressional delegation for the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s bureau in Washington, D.C., and who has since written about O’Keefe’s arrest, said complaints about Landrieu’s phones just didn’t rise to the threshold of news, in his opinion. “The story portrayed by O’Keefe was that there was some intention here not to hear from her constituents. I think the idea when everyone is calling a congressional office and they’re not getting through is not surprising,” Tilove said.

Tilove readily admits he heard from plenty of readers who wanted to voice their opinion of the bill, but had trouble contacting Landrieu’s office. Landrieu had been on the fence about the health care bill and was buffeted with calls from all sides of the debate, Tilove explained. At first she had opposed a public option, and was targeted by public option supporters, he said. Then, several political action groups launched campaigns urging their supporters to tell Landrieu to vote against the bill. When, in late November, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh called Sen. Landrieu a high-priced prostitute for accepting $300 million in Medicaid benefits for Louisiana, in exchange for voting to allow the bill to go to the floor for debate, Landrieu was likely fielding calls from an even larger national audience. She was a “lightning rod,” he said.

I’m not discounting that a lot of people were having trouble getting through to her, but when you are the focus of as much attention and effort to systematically get everyone to call you—because she was so prominently out there as a swing vote on this and because she went in a direction that was out of step with the majority opinion in her state and because a variety of ad campaigns were telling people to call her and tell her what you think—while I understand the frustration, I’m not entirely surprised you would have trouble getting through.

The first media mention of any complaints about Landrieu’s phones can be traced back to a Dec. 23 article in the Baton Rouge Advocate by Mark Ballard, who covered a health care reform protest in front of Landrieu’s Baton Rouge office. In the story, Ballard quoted Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, one of the groups that organized the protest, who implied that Landrieu was being purposefully unreachable.

“We were stunned to learn that so many phone calls to Sen. Landrieu have been unanswered and met with continuous busy signals. We asked them to call their senators. They could get through to Sen. Vitter, but not Sen. Landrieu,” Perkins told Ballard.

(Tilove points out that David Vitter’s vote was never in play, and therefore he wouldn’t have received as many calls—and prompted as many busy signals—as Landrieu. “Vitter’s position on this was unambiguous and ironclad,” he said. “There would be no comparison, and very few offices in the country were as much the subject of calling as hers.”)

Perkins’s complaints didn’t come as news to Ballard, either. In November, following Beck and Limbaugh’s prostitute comments, Ballard received a spike of complaints from voters who couldn’t reach Sen. Landrieu. To test the claims that Landrieu was unreachable, Ballard conducted an experiment. He randomly called Landrieu’s Washington, D.C., office at different times of day over the course of about a month, targeting the D.C. office because “we want to talk to her directly if possible and avoid talking to flacks.” He usually got through—and if he got a busy signal, he called back later and always got someone on the line, he said.

“We checked on it and when we checked on it, we didn’t have trouble getting through,” Ballard said. “We had no special back-room numbers, we had to go through the front door the same way as everybody else. Doesn’t mean there weren’t these times you couldn’t get through because of all the calls jamming the lines. But for the most part, we had no trouble.”

The one time he really couldn’t get through at all, he said, was the day of the Family Research Council and Baton Rouge Tea Party’s march on Landrieu’s Baton Rouge office, on Dec. 22, two days before the final health care vote in the Senate. “Presumably more people were calling that day because Tony Perkins was making such a to-do about it,” Ballard said.

So that day he had the Advocate’s Washington reporter, Gerald Shields, grab Landrieu for a comment after she gave a speech on the Senate floor.

That’s when Landrieu said “Our lines have been jammed for weeks and I apologize. But no amount of jamming is going to keep me from supporting a good work for Louisiana and the nation.”

Ballard conceded that Landrieu’s other offices could have been inundated with more calls than the D.C. number he had been testing. “Maybe they were calling the New Orleans office and they really did take the phone off the hook,” he said.

In the end, he saw the phone complaints as a non-story.

“It just didn’t ring true. If y’all don’t call at the same time, you’re more likely to get through,” he said. “If we found over several days we couldn’t get through, then that would have been a story.” But they didn’t, and so the story didn’t have a lot of news value, in Ballard’s judgment.

“What would the lede be like?” he asked. “‘Five people said they couldn’t get through to Sen. Landrieu’s office and when we called we didn’t have a problem and when we told the senator about the complaints she said, ‘Gee, I don’t know why’?’ I can’t really see where the story is.”

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.