Florida Gov. Rick Scott has a reputation for not answering direct questions from news reporters. Political experts say all office holders try to control their messages—but sometimes an unwillingness to address issues can overshadow what they’re trying to say.
A common theme runs through much of the recent news coverage of Scott.
It's seen in an on-camera exchange last week, in which WTSP reporter Noah Pransky says to the governor, “You didn’t answer that question.”
Pransky was asking whether Scott knew police officers at his Tampa reelection campaign event were on duty—which would be against the law. In the widely circulated video, the governor dodges the question four times.
Another reporter in the video asks, “Did you really think that all of those deputies were off duty?”
Scott replies, “I’m very proud that last week the Florida Sheriffs endorsed me. I’m very proud that 40 police chiefs have endorsed me.”
Scott has also avoided directly answering questions about gay marriage and climate change recently. And his reputation for sticking to a single topic—usually job growth—has extended beyond Florida.
In a recent segment, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asks, “What if people in other professions started doing this? Teachers, when a student asks you a question in class, just keep repeating that ‘Attendance is up.’”
Professor Robert Crew, who directs Florida State University’s applied American politics program, says, “I think the problem for Governor Scott is that refusal to answer has become an issue in the campaign.”
Crew says Scott isn’t the first candidate to try to tightly control his message. And a couple of factors are at play: For one, he says the media take statements out of context for shock factor that gets people to tune in or click. And he says candidates for statewide office are constantly tracked by the opposition, many times with hidden cameras.
“Candidates are reluctant to say things that may be misinterpreted by a media over which they have very little control,” he says.
Former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez agrees, technology has made today’s campaigns a different animal than when he ran in the late ‘80s.
“Today you can be on YouTube instantly, and I think that causes candidates to, quite frankly, be overly cautious or sometimes make major gaffes,” he says.
Martinez says when he was in office, he always tried to answer questions about issues of public importance. But he’s says that’s not to say Scott’s approach won’t work as he seeks reelection.
“Some people will talk to members of the press constantly; some want a different way of doing it, and I always respect a candidate whichever way they choose,” he says.
But Florida Southern College political scientist Bruce Anderson says ignoring questions outright is a risky strategy, “especially if they are questions that have arisen in the public mind.”
But Anderson says it can work in a candidate’s favor if reporters eventually give up.
“And I think that the press needs to keep pressing,” he says. “After all, it’s that kind of an environment, that’s what democracy is about; it’s about knowing everything that we can know about the people we’re entrusting with the public business.”
Plus, he says repeating the same lines instead of acknowledging questions can make people doubt someone’s ability to think on his feet and, ultimately, his ability to lead.
But for the governor’s part—when a TV reporter recently asked, “Why do you think you have a reputation for not answering questions?” Scott answered, “Oh, gosh, I answer questions. I have the opportunity to talk to the media a lot. I love traveling the state. I talk to people all over the state. It’s an exciting time to be in Florida.”
No matter what the answers are, Anderson says it’s up to reporters to keep on asking questions.