Louisiana is known throughout the U.S. for its colorful politicians and complicated relationship with the press. The forum “Democracy, Media and History: Louisiana Politics vs. The Press,” on Tuesday in the Holliday Forum attempted to dissect this relationship through discourse between students and a panel of experts on a variety of Louisiana politicians such as Huey P. Long, Jim Garrison, Dutch Morial and Kathleen Blanco.
The event was a collaboration between the Manship School of Mass Communication, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and public radio stations 89.3 WRKF in Baton Rouge and 89.9 WWNO in New Orleans. Panelists included Xavier University professor Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir, University professor Alecia Long, LaPolitics reporter Jeremy Alford and host and producer of WWNO’s podcast Tripod: New Orleans at 300 Laine Kaplan-Levenson.
To fully understand why Louisiana politicians have such a distinct and multifaceted relationship with the press, it is important to note what qualities Louisiana has that allows it to produce officials inclined to have such relationships with the media.
Long specialized on Huey P. Long and Jim Garrison and explained that responsibility for this relationship is shared dually between the Louisiana Constitution and the culture of Louisianans. Though the position of governor does hold a large amount of power in the state, the people of Louisiana are interested in politics when it is entertaining.
“Huey P. Long was always the biggest show in town when he rolled through, and the same can be said for his brother, Earl,” Long said. “Edwin Edwards entertained people [and] people liked to listen to them talk.”
Similarly, Kaplan-Levenson argued the socioeconomics of the state made it easier for these politicians to build their character and momentum in elections.
“Huey P. Long was able to go to rural areas of Louisiana that had never had a politician visit,” Kaplan-Levenson said. “He found a way to get there, made a speech and gained followers. He realized that he could do that to gain popularity. By knowing who made up his state he was able to go to them and made sure they knew his name.”
Contrarily, Alford observed that politicians like these are not isolated to Louisiana, but the characters and spectacles of politicians like the Long brothers and Edwin Edwards defined the governorship of Louisiana as something bigger than any other state. He emphasized how Louisiana politicians can use the media to promote their characters and relate to the constituency but also to be aggressive candidates.
Alford recalled the Louisiana gubernatorial debate in which former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco was asked to recount her son’s recent death.
“Like any mother, she broke down on camera,” Alford said. “She knew the question was coming, but she decided not to hide her emotions. A lot of folks would credit that with her victory, but if you asked Blanco what won her that election, she would say it was her decision to pull the trigger on an attack ad against Bobby Jindal. She did have those emotions, but in the same cycle she was able to release an attack ad.”
Sinegal-DeCuir, an expert on New Orleans' first black governor Dutch Morial, depicted how diverse Morial’s relationship to the press was from the other politicians on the forum because of his race.
“Because [Morial] was African-American, he wasn’t able to be colorful,” Sinegal-DeCuir said. “He was a trailblazer and he was changing things, but he had to do so in a completely different way because he was African-American and because there were racial undertones in everything he was trying to do.”
Sinegal-DeCuir remarked on how not only did Morial have to accomplish goals in new ways, but also how the media had to report on him innovatively as they had no previous experience with a black mayor in New Orleans.
“[The media] had never encountered a black American in such a high position,” Sinegal-DeCuir said. “They didn’t know what to make of him. They tippey-toed around things with him that they would have attacked other politicians for. [Morial] actually called the media out himself for being too soft.”
Long also spoke about how Louisiana politicians are keen on manipulating the traditional media to promote their narrative. She used Jim Garrison as an example as he was a master manipulator on the television. Garrison was a district attorney in New Orleans who is known for his conspiracy theory and cover-up ties to the assassination of former president John F. Kennedy.
“[Garrison] used chaos to his advantage,” Long said. “He would make grandiose claims about how he solved the assassination of John F. Kennedy and when he would get pressed, he would change the story into a new spectacular. The media couldn’t stand to ignore his spectacular claims. This was very skillful on his part.”
"Democracy, Media and History: Louisiana Politics vs. The Press" serves as a preface to WWNO’s newest podcast and radio show Stickey Wicket, which premieres Nov. 13 at 6:30 p.m., and the "Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ 64 Parishes."