Cage matches between the media and elected officials have become an expected part of the current, vitriolic political ecosystem. But I recall a time when California government worked smoothly with the “fourth estate” to drive good policy, inform residents and have some pizazz while doing so.
News that the Capitol Annex building in Sacramento is slated for demolition made me reminisce about the hours I spent there and what that space represented. As press secretary for then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, my memories are vivid about annex press room 1190. But even more memorable is the tight-nit, oddball community we built in the Governor’s Office Press Room adjacent to it.
Reporters in the area would crowd in between the press deputies’ desks looking for a scoop or trading gossip.
At the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming governor of California created a boom market for reporters. The Capitol press corps’ visibility rocketed to levels never seen before as California and the nation were intrigued by what was happening in Sacramento with a celebrity governor. We were in start-up mode for one of the biggest economies in the world, with the accompanying barrage of thousands of media calls.
We had an open-door policy for reporters, which generated respect and camaraderie while maintaining — as should be expected — an appropriate level of suspicion. It was a fishbowl, literally: my office wall was glass, and reporters who got a glimpse of me would gleefully drop in at will. Reporters in the area would crowd in between the press deputies’ desks looking for a scoop or trading gossip. That close proximity deepened relationships built on a shared love of policy, and we got to know each other as people. Even though our interactions could feel adversarial (hello Peter Nicholas, how are you doing?) we were respectful.
We had humorous exchanges across the partisan aisle in the press room. Our press staff would sit in the back and listen to Democratic leadership briefings, using their Blackberries to type what was being said in real time for senior staff. Sometimes the officials would call us out from the podium to make sure we had caught what they had said, and more than once, we were kicked out. Far more often were the joint press conferences we would hold with Gov. Schwarzenegger and bi-partisan legislative leaders, a show of solidarity putting the people of California before political party – something that increasingly seems part of a bygone era.
Today there are fewer beat reporters, there is no longer free access to the governor’s press staff, and weekly briefings are a thing of the past.
I held weekly press briefings in 1190 which led to what felt like a PhD in California public policy. To get ready for those I would ask reporters who stopped by what they were working on so I could be prepared, and they would usually tell me so they would have what they needed for their stories. I always had a full house, but when the governor was at the podium the room would bust at the seams with journalists stuffed shoulder to shoulder in the back of the room as the beat reporters took their spots in those hard, yellow plastic chairs.
Today there are fewer beat reporters, there is no longer free access to the governor’s press staff, and weekly briefings are a thing of the past. All those things evaporated well before COVID-19 hit and the Capitol annex emptied out. In its heyday, the first floor of the annex was a place where heated clashes transpired, public policy was made, and magic happened. I made some of my closest friends there with an incredible press staff that worked long hours fielding inquiries from local, state, national, international, sports and entertainment outlets. We spent so much time together that one couple met and got married.
So as one building says “hasta la vista, baby,” it is my hope that the newly constructed space will bring people together to capture that spark where media and press staff work through the inherent tension and can view each other not as nemeses but as people with a shared love of California.
Editor’s Note: Margita Thompson was press secretary for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from 2003-2006. She is now Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield.