The big chill at the Capitol

DFLers at the Capitol are tackling a major problem that’s developed during this session — too many people want to tell Minnesotans what they’re doing.

It started innocently enough. A few bloggers and online news organizations asked for the same access on the House and Senate floor as mainstream journalists.

That not only didn’t happen, but yesterday, WCCO reported that the DFL cracked down on the filming of committee hearings. According to reporter Esme Murphy, the sergeant at arms has proposed a new sweeping set of restrictions that will prevent almost any TV coverage of hearings at the Capitol that the leadership doesn’t want covered.

The apparent crackdown on coverage isn’t just limited to TV reporters.

Don Davis, the Capitol reporter for Forum Communications’ newspapers, says he was hassled while trying to cover a hearing.

Two hours after Wittenborg’s meeting, I was trying to take a photo of Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth presenting a bill to a House committee. A page approached and asked to see my credentials before she would allow me to take photos. Recalling Wittenborg’s assurances that no credentials were needed, I told her that I had just been told I did not need to present credentials (which, by the way, hung in plain sight from a lanyard around my neck) and I continued to photograph Marquart.

Soon after I returned to my seat in the back of the room, two state troopers approached me after the page had called them, apparently to kick out this photographer. Both had seen me plenty of times and knew I was legitimate, so gave me little hassle.

Not long after I returned to the office to write my story, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher called to apologize for the incident and promised it would be investigated. And Marquart called to apologize, even though he did not even know the troopers were talking to me at the time and had no knowledge of the proposed rule changes until I told him.

Earlier in the day, according to Marty Owings at the blog Radio Free Nation, reporters and bloggers gave House officials the “what for” over the issue:

Mary Lahammer of TPT’s Almanac suggested that any lawyer who proposed these rules should be “disbarred”. Tom Hauser from KSTP agreed and added that it was “absurd” that any Law Maker would even propose these rules. Jason Barnett of the Uptake.org asked what the real issue was. Mr. Whittenborg said it ran the gamut from “space concerns” to “security issues.” He said some concerns were raised about who was filming Law Makers and that some of them were “weirded out” while others welcomed the cameras.

Mr. Whittenborg pointed out that Leadership was aware that there were cameras every where now and that they were looking at these issues. Everyone in the room, including Mr. Whittenborg agreed that restricting cameras was not a solution. What about space issues? Mr. Whittenborg mentioned that this could be a concern. Noah Kunin from the UpTake.org suggested that space be allocated on a first come, first serve basis.

Minnesota’s Society of Professional Journalists isn’t happy either, according to a statement.

“If there is an issue of decorum, safety or logistical space, elected leaders have appropriate methods in place. Rather than create additional rules that imply a person’s credentials will be issued based on where a person works or how long a person will be reporting at the Capitol, SPJ would encourage legislative leaders to lessen the rules to allow more people to report in new and innovative ways to reach more of the public. The Legislature should establish equitable rules for all media, with no bias awarded anyone based on medium, method or viewpoint. If this proposal reflects the Legislature’s attempt to do that, they have missed the mark.”

The action comes at a time when legislative coverage is at an ebb. News organizations have cut reporters and time for legislative coverage, and Channel 17’s all-day live coverage of the Legislature has disappeared for many viewers in the metro area because of the switch to digital programming.

There’s virtually no reasonable case to be made that inviting a few bloggers in to inspect the workings of elected officials would cause an undue burden on the lawmakers who, for the record, asked for the job. The third month of the legislative session has started and the Legislature still hasn’t produced a major piece of legislation or even an alternative to the budget proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. And most of the critical decisions of the session will continue to be made behind solidly closed — and occasionally guarded — doors by a small handful of people.

Of all the problems currently facing the people of the state of Minnesota, being too informed about what the pols are doing at the Capitol isn’t one of them.

Update 3:28 p.m. – It’s worth reading Mary Lahammer’s blog today. It sounded like things were cordial, but tense at the House Taxes Committee hearing today.

  • Paul

    The Sargent at Arms actually threw the guy from The Uptake out last week. KFIA did an entire hour on this issue last Wed on Truth to Tell, they had several guests including a Democratic House Member. You can listen to the show here: http://www.kfai.org/archive/03/4/2009 scroll down to “Truth to Tell”. They had a very thorough discussion of the rationale (or lack of it) behind the restrictions, press credentialing, the emergence of online/blogging journalism and it’s legitimate role at the Capital etc.

  • Bob Collins

    I listened to the KFAI show and it was OK right up until the point when Shawn Towle (Checks and Balances) described Politics in Minnesota as “a rag until Dolan bought it.” Then it lost all journalistic credibility, and — because he’s one of the bloggers asking for credentials — undercut the effort. It was not a very smart thing to say. PIM was the bible for political coverage in Minnesota long before bloggers came along. It suggested ulterior motives (its one of C&B’s competitors) and played to the fear of the House leadership which clearly believes that bloggers are in it for reasons other than to serve the audience.

    I also noted that a lot of the “ideas” for solving the problem were the ones I proposed via Twitter a week earlier. I don’t think that was much of an accident.

    It’s not the first time, of course, that powerful politicians have used their idle time in petty ways. It just happens to be a particularly clumsy application of it.

  • Paul

    “I listened to the KFAI show and it was OK right up until the point when Shawn Towle (Checks and Balances) described Politics in Minnesota as “a rag until Dolan bought it.” Then it lost all journalistic credibility”

    I’m sorry, your saying the entire show lost it’s credibility because one guest expressed an opinion you disagreed with? And when did this happen, five, ten, twenty minutes into the show?

  • Jane D’oh

    The press can do its job very adequately without becoming a part of the proceedings. Yeah, getting that action shot is good for readers/viewers. Yeah, you’re all licensed, bonded, and insured journalists who have a right to be there.

    The good reporters know that if a legislative committee has to stop what it’s doing to accommodate you, you’re the problem.

  • Paul

    “The good reporters know that if a legislative committee has to stop what it’s doing to accommodate you, you’re the problem. ”

    So your saying if accommodating journalists become problematic they should just locked out?

  • Jack

    Bob:

    Although I agree with the importance of media access to legislative hearings and sessions, your anger clouds your judgment regarding the issue. You lash out at the decisionmakers and use subjective language that underplays the issue.

    Saying a “few” bloggers is incorrect. It is possible that many bloggers would like access to the House floor. With limited space on the floor, that may bump other journalists from the floor. The issue is: who is a legitimate journalist and how should those people get access to hearings and the floor? Are you comfortable with MPR being bumped (due to space issues) by Joe Blogger?

    Futhermore, your attack of the leglislature’s current work has no place within your posting. It also shows a poor understanding of the Legislature and its work. I think the access discussion is important, but let’s keep it focused on that issue and not lash out personalities.

  • Bob Collins

    Anger…. lash out. That’s not really accurate at all,actually.

    But, yes, your comments do mirror those of Tony Sertich, but there are two separate issues that you’re confusing. One is floor access and while a bunch of credentialed bloggers conceivably could add to the number of people on the floor, as Tom Scheck pointed out, there are fewer reporters working the floor now than years ago. So basically it’s a wash.

    It’s true, hordes of bloggers could descend on the Capitol. And that’s a problem to be discussed with rules to be written. But we’re not seeing that here. We’re seeing a blanket “no” to anyone who is not a mainstream media member. The fact that there was no willingness to consider workable rules tells me that, in fact, it’s a desire to keep, say, MinnPost or The Uptake or Twin Cities Planet off the House floor, and then trying to find a reason to do so. Otherwise, there would be some discussion.

    But that’s a different animal from the new rules for covering committees. And hassling The Forum Communications guy was nothing but pettiness. He’s been covering it for years; and all of a sudden it’s a security issue?

    As far as attacking personalities, saying the Legislature is slow-moving is NOT an attack on personalities. It’s an attack on performance. Why is it important that we’re a month and a half away from the end of the session and we still haven’t had a DFL proposal for a budget? Simple. Because the longer it takes to get it, the less time there will be for it to be vetted in public. Couple that with a clampdown on media access, and it’s a hard sell to suggest that the public is well served here. We’ve all seen what happens when important legislation is rushed through, or conceived behind closed doors, in the closing days of congressional or legislative sessions.

    Trust me. I have no intention of wasting yours — and certainly my — time describing my pedigree for legislative knowledge. It’s an old trick at the Capitol that I simply won’t be suckered into. I respect your assessment and you’re certainly entitled to claim it as fact.

    What’s happening at the Capitol — particularly with the committee rules — is a display of power by people who have the time and inclination to do so.

  • Bob Collins

    //I’m sorry, your saying the entire show lost it’s credibility because one guest expressed an opinion you disagreed with? And when did this happen, five, ten, twenty minutes into the show?

    Yes, I’m saying a show that is based on claims of the nobility of journalism is diminished when one says something like that. YMMV.

  • Bob Collins

    //The good reporters know that if a legislative committee has to stop what it’s doing to accommodate you, you’re the problem.

    I would welcome any citation of a time when a legislative committee ever had to stop what it’s doing to accommodate the people who were covering it.

  • peter hill

    The proposed regs are heavy handed, but your righteous purple indignation does not improve the quality of discussion. …and Don Davis’ prima donna moment suggests a knowledgeable veteran baiting a naive and overzealous page for the purpose of creating an incident. Zero points for the journalists on that one.

    I’m most fond of the 1st amendment, but journalists who approach Capitol coverage with the inflammatory language and challenging behavior recited here get little sympathy from me.

    …and yes, “anger” and “lash out” do seem accurate in describing the tenor of your prose. Convince me otherwise.

  • Bob Collins

    I appreciate your comments, Peter, but you’re not really discussing the issue, you’re inflamming a passion against me.

    What is your evidence that Don Davis was baiting a page? Or is that supposition.

    In any event, could you speak to the proposed regulations — both of them ? I would really appreciate it if folks would read the new regulations and then describe here why they make sense. So far, nobody has done that. Which is not to say that I haven’t been entertained by them. I have.

  • Bob

    I guess I’m unclear on the concept as to why it would ever be appropriate or justified for legislators to deny news organizations of any type or stripe the right to attend and record the activities (or inactivities) of public officials doing the public’s business.

    Security, schmecurity.

    If a bigger space is needed to conduct the public’s business and to allow room for access by any and all interested media, it is incumbent on the public officials to find a bigger space in which to meet.

  • Jack

    What is the Capitol Corps doing to regulate itself? Have you come up with proposed rules, ethics, etc. to bring to leadership to deal with their concerns? It just seems like you are reactive to their actions but have no solutions. Heck, doctors, lawyers, and other professions establish organizations to regulate their members but it seems the media just wants complete access to everything without recognizing the problems that creates.

  • Bob Collins

    //What is the Capitol Corps doing to regulate itself? Have you come up with proposed rules, ethics, etc. to bring to leadership to deal with their concerns?

    Actually, I have and I think they were used for some of the models that were talked about on KFAI.

    I’ve recommended an approach similar to what is used in Congress. Congress does not regulate credentialling, the House Radio/TV Gallery does that.

    I’ve recommended a similar idea here, where journalists create their own governing authority and issue credentials. Of course that would require some conversation and some transfer of “turf.”

    But again, Jack, you’re focusing only one aspect of the issue — floor access — while ignoring the larger question of the reporting on the work of committees, which is where most of the Legislature’s work is done.

    Specifically, of what business is it of the House DFL leaders HOW a reporter intends to use the video or photography that is taken during a committee. That seems to be an entirely separate issue from whether security during a committee hearing is compromised?

    Why would politicians be interested in regulating the content of news stories, which is what part of those rules would do?

    And, again, where is the a single instance of when the reporters doing their jobs interfered with the committee members doing theirs?

    If nobody can come up with one, then why is it an issue and why is it an issue NOW?

  • Paul

    Bob,

    YMMV?

    You’ll have to explain at length sometime this idea of yours that journalists have news “bible’s”, i.e. infallible scriptures like PIM that are not to be questioned, criticized, or critically examined. This is an interesting notion indeed. You may well have taken my idea of a consensus media to whole new level.

    Moving on, the problem isn’t that there is no space for journalists, nor are journalists interfering in any way the proceedings. The guy from The Uptake was not ejected by the sergeant at arms because he was causing a disruption or because there was a lack of space. He was ejected because he was video streaming the hearing, the same way The Uptake is video streaming the Franken/Coleman court proceedings.

    In short, none of the reasons the legislators have given for this ejection make sense. They claim there is a security issue- what issue? They claim that some members have complained and alluded some kind of stalking, but we have stalking laws, and they can deal with problematic individuals without restricting legitimate efforts to report government activity.

    The only real concern the legislators seem to have is that bloggers will park in a hearing and attempt to capture “macaca” moments that are embarrassing to members. Of course, they don’t come out and say this, they allude to “security” issues.

    Obviously the State cannot be allowed to restrict the press simply because they fear embarrassment. This would be flat out unconstitutional. The problem with the “rules” they’re trying to enact is that they allow backdoor censorship by providing opaque rules that let them censor by restricting access.

    As far as space issues are concerned, if that actually becomes an issue there are a variety of ways to deal with it ranging from first come first serve, to lotteries, to closed circuit TV etc. But arbitrarily denying reporters access or credentials, or worse, denying access or credentials for political reasons, is just not how Democracy is supposed to work.

  • I have known Don Davis professionally for a number of years. There is no way he would do anything other than a journalist’s job, IMHO.

    He does protect his co-workers from abuse like a grizzly protects its cub. At least one well-known MN pol found that out the hard way…

  • Bob Collins

    //You’ll have to explain at length sometime this idea of yours that journalists have news “bible’s”, i.e. infallible scriptures like PIM that are not to be questioned, criticized, or critically examined. This is an interesting notion indeed. You may well have taken my idea of a consensus media to whole new level.

    The only Bible i know of is the one in my head that says “beware of people who make up your words and then ask you to defend them.”

    I am a listener — in this case to KFAI — I have the same right to judge the comments of a guest on a show (or a blot) that you or anyone else does. So when I hear Shawn Towle say that PIM was “a rag,” I have no problem concluding that everything else Shawn Towle said during that program, should be judged in the context of — as anyone who remembers when PIM was the only game in town knows — a questionable assertion.

    That doesn’t mean you have to accept that view. It only means that you have to accept that I accept that view.

    That said, I do think that the bloggers vs. mainstream arguments and the usual conspiracies that goes with it is a tired argument and has hurt the overall effort to open up access at the Capitol to new media.

    One of these days, discussions about journalism should move beyond the mainstream vs. new media quarrels. I mean, gosh, it’s been going on for about 7 years now.

  • Jane D’oh

    Bob, and folks,

    I’m a little sleep deprived, so maybe my original post was more grating than I wanted it to be.

    The main issue is whether journalists should have access that the normal public does not. On a normal day, anyone can walk into the capitol and sit down in a hearing, assuming it’s not about a controversial issue and packed with activists, lobbyists, etc. In most cases, there is already a section of seating reserved for credentialed journalists in the back of committee rooms. This is more than an adequate accommodation. The committee does its business in a public way, everyone gets to cover the story, reporters take notes and get their quotes after the hearing. (cleaning hands motion)

    My point was about the journalist/blogger who interrupts the proceedings and (ignorantly) makes a stink about not having super special access. All they have to do is talk to the Sergeant’s office and get credentials for the special access. It’s such an amazingly open process that looking for a controversy is really counter-productive in this case.

  • Bob Collins

    //makes a stink about not having super special access

    Are you talking about The Uptake? They’re not making a stink. They’re simply turning on a camera to tape or broadcast the proceeding. Special access? How? House radio/TV films them, the commercial TV stations film it (or could up until yesterday), how is it special that a guy with a camera — which, by the way, is much, much smaller and less intrusive than commercial TV — films.

    Why should anyone have to sign a statement promising that they’re not there to film committee members?

    And, again, someone give me a single instance of a time when a committee could not complete its work — or even had its work interrupted — because of journalists. Just one, which I should think should be easy to do.

    I’d feel better, Jane, if you used your real name. It sounds like you’re connected to the legislature or press corps in some capacity.

    It’s that transparency thing run amok.

  • Paul

    Jane,

    Just to super clear, no one was expecting any kind of “super special access” just the same access granted to others. No one in any way disrupted or interfered with the proceedings. This “stink” is about being thrown out for no good reason, it isn’t about being denied super special access of some kind.

    I don’t know, maybe there was a time when something like this could happen without causing a stink, but those days are over. You want to try to restrict journalists access, go ahead, but don’t expect everyone to just walk away and shut up.

  • Paul

    Jack said:

    “Futhermore, your attack of the leglislature’s current work has no place within your posting. It also shows a poor understanding of the Legislature and its work. I think the access discussion is important, but let’s keep it focused on that issue and not lash out personalities.”

    Even if Bob did attack the legislator’s current work, (I don’t think he did) but even he did, why would that not be appropriate in his posting? In other words Jack, who are you to declare what is and is not appropriate? I suppose anyone who criticizes the legislature is ignorant? Surely you jest.

    I haven’t seen anything here that doesn’t belong in a free exchange of ideas.

  • peter hill

    Hi Bob. I’m not sure whose passion you think I’m inflaming – I came neutral to this issue, but it appears there are some inflamed journalists who need to calm themselves.

    The evidence that Don Davis was baiting a page is right there in his words.

    “I told her that I had just been told I did not need to present credentials (which, by the way, hung in plain sight from a lanyard around my neck).”

    Why not just show the credentials? Why provoke the page? If he wanted to push the issue, why not go after someone with real power? That is, why not pick on somebody his own size?

    “…two state troopers approached me after the page had called them, apparently to kick out this photographer.”

    You ask me for evidence, but I wasn’t there. Meanwhile, to borrow your standard, what evidence is Davis offering that the troopers approached him “apparently to kick out this photographer”? How about “apparently because the page had been unnecessarily stiffed by a crabby old photographer, and wanted to cover her butt by asking the troopers check the old geek’s credentials”? Just as plausible, no? Maybe more so.

    You ask, “In any event, could you speak to the proposed regulations — both of them ? I would really appreciate it if folks would read the new regulations and then describe here why they make sense. So far, nobody has done that. Which is not to say that I haven’t been entertained by them. I have.”

    I noted previously that the regs appear to be heavy handed. I would add vague and subjective to that description. Unfortunately, if you aggrieved folks determine to turn this into a food fight, you make the regs’ content secondary to the question of your own conduct and attitudes. Not the best way to win friends and influence people, imho.

    …and Bob, “you’re not really discussing the issue, you’re inflamming a passion against me” did not convince me. Perhaps if you had offered some evidence?

  • Bob Collins

    Thanks for your comments, Peter.