Candidate attempt to control message goes too far in WI

Political campaigns make otherwise reasonable people go over the edge.

The latest example surrounds Michelle Obama’s campaign visit to Milwaukee this week in support of Mary Burke, who is trying to unseat incumbent Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter, Meg Kissinger, was trying to interview people who were attending the event when campaign workers stopped her.

Mark Pitsch, head of the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists was among those responding to the restrictions.

The good news is that the campaign of gubernatorial candidate Burke and the White House have a chance to get it right. Obama is returning to Wisconsin for a Burke campaign event in Madison on Tuesday, Oct. 7. We call on the White House and the Burke campaign to allow reporters to speak to event attendees at any time – before, during or after the event. A Burke campaign spokesman told us today there would be no restrictions at the Madison event.

According to reporters, aides to both the Burke campaign and the White House sought to prevent reporters covering the Milwaukee event from speaking with event attendees until the event ended.

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“To say that I was creeped out is an understatement. This is what reporters do in America: we speak to people. At least that’s how I’ve been doing things — at all kinds of political events — since 1979.”

One press minder even told the chairman of the state Democratic Party to stop talking to a reporter because he was inside the press pen. The Burke spokesman told us he intervened and allowed the interview to proceed.

These are not the only restrictions that have been imposed by campaigns on the media in recent years. Wisconsin-based reporters have noted increasing attempts to prevent them from doing their jobs, including holding pens, limits on who can be interviewed, and more.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, for example, the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan hand-picked event attendees to be interviewed, one reporter told SPJ. That year campaigns for the Wisconsin U.S. Senate candidates roped off media from people attending Election Night parties in an effort to prevent interviews. At the Republican state convention this year, party officials told some reporters not to interview delegates in the audience.

As we near Nov. 4 and campaign season accelerates, we urge the political parties and individual campaigns to grant the press open access to candidates, supporters and event attendees.

In response, the White House said it was a case of “an overzealous staff person.”

Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl writes today, however, that the effort to control the press didn’t stop there.

The partisan attacks worry Burke campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki. He called the Journal Sentinel newsroom and tried to have the mention of press restrictions deleted from the online news article. Editors refused. Zepecki then complained bitterly in emails to Kissinger and said it wasn’t news, nor was her inclusion in the article that people at the rally who needed to sit down were having trouble finding chairs.

Zepecki later told me no other reporters mentioned any of this in their news accounts. That just proves Kissinger is the only one who got it right. We can’t have politicians or their staffs dictating how news is covered, because you know they’d love to.

Zepecki admitted it was a mistake to restrict press interviews with anyone who showed up for the rally. These were Burke and Michelle Obama fans filling the convention hall, and I would think the campaign would be thrilled to see them quoted in the news.