Gov. Larry Hogan has cast his decision to break with tradition Wednesday and deliver the annual State of the State speech at 7 p.m., rather than noon, as part of a reaction to new demands caused by COVID-19.
While almost everything these days is legitimately a reaction to the pandemic at least in part, the question is: How much of the move is actually about politics by someone who looks more and more like he wants to be president?
“While we honor the historic and constitutional significance of this annual tradition, it is important we follow the proper health protocols,” Mr. Hogan said in a statement Monday. “This address provides a chance to reflect on the unprecedented challenges we have confronted together over the last year, and the opportunities for recovery that lie ahead.”
As Sun reporter, Pamela Wood explained in a news story, governors typically give the annual address to a joint session of the General Assembly. But Hogan will instead deliver the speech virtually, without an in-person audience. It will be streamed on the governor’s social media channels and shown on Maryland Public Television. It will also be made available for television stations and other news organizations to carry at 7 p.m.
That last part about MPT, social media, TV stations and news organizations is where it gets complicated with Mr. Hogan, as he has begun acting more like a candidate for president than governor of Maryland in his use of media. As he does so, he becomes fair game for media critics like me.
In a 2020 year-end article, one my five hopes for this year was for a more politically informed and critical analysis of Mr. Hogan. We have to judge every act through that lens of his presidential ambition.
So, here’s what I see: a politician looking to control the media in hopes of finding bigger and more demographically attractive audiences. The potential audience at 7 p.m. on Baltimore TV is twice as large as the one at noon, according to William Fanshawe, longtime general manager of WBFF ( Channel 45), who is now group station manager for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns the hometown station.
Furthermore, you have a better demographic mix of viewers at 7 p.m. ― not only members of the news audience who tend to be older. WMAR (Channel 2) and WJZ (Channel 13) have newscasts, while WBAL (Channel 11) has the newsmagazine “Inside Edition” and WBFF (Channel 45) has the highly popular “Jeopardy.”
In Ms. Wood’s article, the governor’s office acknowledged wanting to “to reach more Marylanders” with the time shift. But is it to give more people a chance to “reflect” on the pandemic, or to heighten Mr. Hogan’s profile as a leader?
This is not a new media strategy. As press secretary to a lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, I used a version of this in the 1970s. We would release announcements and start speeches at the beginning of the suppertime newscasts to try to get the top spot on the bigger broadcasts in Milwaukee and Madison. That placement can make the speech or announcement look like it is the most important news of the day ― like being above the fold on the front page of a newspaper.
So, presumably, by airing the virtual speech at 7 p.m. rather than noon, Mr. Hogan would have twice the potential audience on Baltimore area TV and the strong possibility of being one of the top stories on the two stations carrying news, WMAR and WJZ.
As for WBAL, it has carried all of the governors’ State of the State speeches when they ran at noon in recent years, so it would seem safe to assume they would carry it at 7 p.m. as well.
And what’s not to like about a popular Republican governor for right-leaning WBFF? Except, it turns out, WBFF is not going to carry Mr. Hogan’s speech at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Billy Robbins, vice president and general manager of the station wrote in an email to the Sun.
So, not only does Mr. Hogan lose coverage on WBFF, he is going to be competing with “Jeopardy,” the most popular show in Baltimore.
As of Tuesday morning, WBAL was still considering whether or not to carry the speech live, according to Dan Joerres, the station’s general manager. WBAL has the second most popular show with “Inside Edition” at 7.
Team Hogan might have out-thought itself on this one. Manipulating media is not as easy as it might look.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik