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Capital reporting


A bit insiderish, what follows. But some points in this Boise kerfuffle about news reporting, access to government and advocacy are worth some consideration. So here goes.

One of the little-known organizations at the Idaho statehouse is the Capitol Correspondents Association. (Most states have counterpart associations, such as the Oregon Legislative Correspondents Association.) Apart from being an organization of professionals, a few other perks go along with it: Wearing a badge which allows the reporter (or photographer, or editor) access to certain places (such as chamber floors) and at times where other members of the public can’t go, including a working room.

I was a member of this group years ago, when working for newspapers in Boise, Pocatello and Nampa. Eventually I concluded that while the idea of associating with peers was fine, the idea of special access was flawed – reporters should be able to go wherever the public can go, have what the public has, but no more (unless, let’s space, it was room space paid for). To allow more puts these reporter in a special class, with special priveleges to be protected, and it skews their relationship with the legislators. In 2001 I covered the Idaho session for the Lewiston Tribune in a fashion similar to what they and I had been accustomed to in the past, declined to seek membership (which I have no doubt would have been granted), and found myself at no disadvantage at all in covering the session or delivering news stories. I’ve since recommended other reporters follow a similar path; I’m not aware of any who have. Perks, however minor, are hard to give up.

The question arising this week is somewhat different. It too will put me in a minority position.

A new web site this year called Idaho Reporter, a project of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, is busy with news items about the Idaho Legislature. Quite busy: Four major articles about the session today, a steady stream since the session began. Its web site is publicly-accessible, not behind a pay wall or such (unlike three Idaho daily newspapers). It has a full-time staff, including at least two reporters (more than all but a few Idaho news organizations devote to the legislature).

Two of its reporters, Dustin Hurst and Brad Iverson-Long, this month applied for membership in the Capitol Correspondents Association. Their applications were rejected, both by the board and unanimously by the membership, on grounds that they did not meet the group’s criteria for membership. Those eligibility criteria (as noted in the Boise Weekly piece linked here):

Article 3: Definitions
(1) For purposes of this Association, a “news organization” is a general circulation newspaper, web outlet, radio station, or television station, or a network or syndicate that has a contractual agreement with a general circulation newspaper, web outlet, radio station or television stations to provide regular coverage of the Idaho Legislature and state government.

(2) For purposes of this Association, a “news organization” is not one that produces for or by an organization with membership requirements, or one that produces for or by an organization that exists to advocate, lobby or otherwise influence legislative, executive or judicial decisions.

(3) For purposes of the Association, a “correspondent” includes reporters, photographers, videographers, and other individuals employed by a news organization whose task is to cover the Idaho State Legislature.

Parsing through this: There’s no meaningful doubt that Hurst and Iverson-Long are reporters: They’re doing that work. They produce news reports, by any reasonable definition. They’re covering the legislature. At the Statehouse. Their reports are disseminated to the public at large.

The issue is in the section referring to “an organization that exists to advocate, lobby or otherwise influence legislative, executive or judicial decisions.” CCA President Betsy Russell seemed to confirm that in saying, “It is simply a matter of what constitutes a news organization, and under our bylaws, an advocacy organization is not a news organization.”

That’s not so simple as it sounds, though.

Newspapers and broadcasters pay lobbyists, sometimes some of the best available, usually through associations, to lobby the legislature on their behalf. So for that matter do reporters themselves: The Idaho Press Club long has lobbied the lawmakers and often has hired lobbyists (who mainly have worked on open meeting and public records matters), and the overlap between the CCA and the IPC often has been considerable. I’ve watched as CCA members and even leaders stood to address legislators at public meetings on open records legislation. Everyone grimaced a bit, but no one called an ethics violation.

Nor, in any major way, when the Coeur d’Alene Press sent long-time Republican office holder and activist Ron Rankin south to Boise to cover the legislature in his own unique fashion. He was accredited. So have been plenty of other reporters for the Press (your scribe being one of them, from long ago), all paid by a newspaper which was a subsidiary of a large Panhandle corporation with lots of local and regional tentacles and frequent involvement with the legislature. Not to single out the Press: Many other newspapers have had their own involvements with state law, and publishers have shown up from time to time at the Statehouse. One former newspaper publisher, Stephen Hartgen, formerly of the Twin Falls Times-News, is now a Republican House member from Twin Falls, and he’s no massively changed person in his new role from his old one. Contentions of purity quickly get hard to defend in this arena.

If the reporters for Idaho Reporter were to actively lobby (as some credentialed reporters actually have in the past), they would be in violation of the CCA standards. But that’s not what’s alleged here.

You can make the point that the Idaho Freedom Foundation is an advocacy organization, and there’s no doubt it is – it was heavily involved with the Tea Party event earlier this month, and it is blunt in advocacy for “market solutions” (you need no expertise in Idaho politics to figure out how that translates). Is it correct to say that it “exists to advocate, lobby or otherwise influence legislative, executive or judicial decisions.” In part, surely; but a good chunk of its work has been public-directed delivery of simple (periodically statistical) information. In other words, legislative advocacy is one piece of its activity, but hardly all, and evidently not even most.

Flipped around: Can any newspaper reporter at the Statehouse say their organizations do not advocate for or against legislative action? If they do, they must work for a newspaper without an editorial page.

As noted at the top, there’s some skepticism in this space about the CCA as anything more than a professional fellowship. But if it is going to be more than that, passing out access and privileges, then its members might do well to give more careful thought to how and why it does what it does.

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