UMass Boston Political Experts Make Headlines During Election Season
September 26, 2012
Two months before the election, Paul Watanabe has a phone in each hand. On his office line – a reporter from The Boston Globe. On his cell – another reporter from the Globe. They want the same thing: intelligent political commentary, on the fly, in a hurry, as they write about the Senate and presidential races on deadline.
Watanabe, chair of the Political Science Department and director of the Institute for Asian American Studies (IAAS), is used to the attention. Along with several of his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Boston, he is a faculty expert: a frequent guest on radio and TV, and an oft-quoted source of insight in the print media.
Though Watanabe is a go-to source for the Globe and The Boston Herald, requests for his view of this year’s heated political races come from near and far.
“I did Radio France about three days ago, and I did Univision yesterday -- they wanted to do a piece on Latinos and the conventions,” Watanabe said. “I did the Herald yesterday. I’ll do NECN tonight.”
Watanabe and his colleague, Maurice Cunningham, an associate professor of political science, are most often called for their analyses of local and national campaigns and candidates.
“There’s the [national] interest in Massachusetts politics because of [Senator Scott] Brown and Elizabeth Warren,” said Cunningham. And reporters writing about presidential candidate Mitt Romney look to the state he governed for sources.
When WBZ Radio’s popular public affairs program “NightSide with Dan Rea” broadcast live from UMass Boston last week, Cunningham was there to share his observations with Rea, a UMass Boston alumnus. Associate Professor of Political Science Erin O’Brien joined Cunningham to break down Romney’s controversial “47 percent” remarks and other topics.
Also taking calls is Carol Hardy-Fanta, senior scholar at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy.
“Whenever there’s an election coming up, especially if gender becomes important, then people will call us,” said Hardy-Fanta. “[W]e have a special sort of niche there.” Hardy-Fanta has already talked to The Daily Beast about why Massachusetts has never elected a female senator. With Warren and Brown locked in a tight race, Hardy-Fanta said she expects more calls as November 6 nears.
Neither Cunningham nor Watanabe deliberately sought to become media experts. In fact, Watanabe says, his training is in international relations and American foreign policy, with a lesser focus on elections. But his profile as director of the IAAS, his 34 years of experience teaching political science, and his fluency and quick wit keep reporters calling.
As for Cunningham, “He understands the state Legislature and state politics better than anybody,” Watanabe said. “And I am often referring people to Mo.
“[For] religion and politics, particularly in Massachusetts, Mo’s the guy to talk to.”
The calls breed more calls, Watanabe says, particularly now that local content is shared widely online.
“In the digital age, there’s a multiplier effect anyway. Something you say to the Newton TAB can end up being picked up by The New York Times,” he said.
Hardy-Fanta has a slightly different approach to dealing with the media.
“There are two paths to being in the news. Sometimes, people reach out to you. And sometimes you have to put yourself out there. I have it both ways,” she said.
Using her contacts in the media, Hardy-Fanta says, she can persuade them to cover angles of stories that she feels are important.
“Does the media report the news?” she said. “Or do you have to poke them a little and let them know they need to be paying attention to something? Sometimes you do have to alert them. And that’s why I think it’s exciting to be able to get in the news, because sometimes you can make a difference, and people start paying attention to something they hadn’t before.”
Watanabe and Cunningham say they try to add something different to election coverage.
“I always say to myself, [reporters] are talking to ten other people. Is there anything that might be different than what the other ten are saying?” Watanabe said.
“What you can do as an academic is perhaps educate them on what social science and especially political science has to say about a question. That is something we can bring to the reporters that they wouldn’t get otherwise. And the good ones really appreciate it,” he said.
It’s not always easy being in the news. A quote that appears in a TV news segment or the final draft of a newspaper story can seem to oversimplify – or even misrepresent – a source’s views.
“Sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you say to yourself, my cat could have said that,” Watanabe said. “And then other times you say, yeah, I provided a different perspective.”