Hank Plante's exit interview


Hank Plante ends a three-decade run as a political journalist with tonight’s (March 24) broadcast of the CBS 5 Eyewitness News, where he has worked since 1986 after starting his career with newspapers in Washington DC. So we took the occasion to talk politics with him, learning that his loyalties lie downtown.

Plante agreed that politics has become ugly these days. “It’s just so much more acrimonious, that’s one thing that’s changed. The other is just the money that’s involved,” Plante told us, marveling at Meg Whitman’s plans to spend $40 million of her own money to run for governor and the $1 million per day that corporations spent lobbying against the health reform bill signed by President Obama.

But the changes haven’t gotten Plante down, as they have many political junkies, who decry the crippling of government’s ability to combat corporate power and address real social and economic problems. “I’ve never become a cynic, and I think that’s one thing that sets me apart from many political journalists,” he said, adding, “I still think politicians can make a difference.”

Yet like many political journalists, when I ask who his favorite politicians have been, he rates them based on whether they’ve made good stories, not whether they good for the people. For journalists, bad is often good, whether it be natural disasters or disgraceful politicians.

“Arnold is a great story. Willie Brown was a great story. Gray Davis was a dull story until he got recalled, then he was a good story,” Plante said.

What about Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has often given Plante exclusive access (including Newsom’s first extended interview after his 2007 sex scandal), but who has also angrily walked out in the middle of an interview with Plante. 

“Personally, I like the mayor. But I have to ask him tough questions, so he can be mercurial. Right now, he’s running for office again, so he’s charming,” Plante said.

In fact, for a journalist, Plante makes clear his preference for Newsom over the progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors, joking, “If I had a month to live, I’d spend it with the Board of Supervisors because it would seem like five years.”

Plante also said that he opposes district elections -- which he said have prevented the emergence of big-stature political figures like Dianne Feinstein and Quintin Kopp -- and Plante said he doesn’t see the value of district elections in counteracting the political power of downtown corporations. “I’m a capitalist and I have no problem with people making money,” he said.

Yet Plante acknowledges the divide between downtown and progressives is San Francisco’s dominant political dynamic, noting, “You see how afraid downtown is of the Board of Supervisors appointing the new mayor.”

While Plante said he believes in the importance of politics, he does decry how political science and public relations have been manipulated in recent years.

“They’re taken a page out of the Karl Rove playbook to talk over the journalists right at the public,” Plante said, noting how many politicians no longer feel the need to be accessible to journalists or honestly and directly answer their questions. “They really want to control the message, so the accessibility is diminished.”

Nonetheless, Plante said he regularly emphasizes the importance of political engagement: “In a place like the Bay Area, where people are inundated with lots of information sources, you have to keep saying it over and over again.” 

Plante, 63, is retiring and moving to his home in Palm Springs with his partner, Roger. Among the many awards and accolades he earned during his career are several Emmys and a prestigious Peabody Award. His station sent out a press release praising Plante, including this comment by anchor Dana King: “There is an entire population of politicians breathing a sigh of relief at the news of Hank’s retirement. Hank was the consummate professional, never combative but he did his homework and asked tough, pointed questions. Politicians, love him or hate him, respected and answered them, every single time. Our newsroom will suffer a huge intellectual void when he leaves.”