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Journalists inside/outside

idaho RANDY
The Idaho

In 2001 I contracted with the Lewiston Tribune, then inconveniently between political reporters, to cover that year’s Idaho legislative session. I handled some aspects of it, though, differently from the years before when I’d covered for other daily papers. I worked out of my home, for example.

And declined to join the Capitol Correspondents Association. I had been a member of it for more than a dozen years up through 1990, and my decision not to apply surprised a few people. But I had reasons.

This is inside baseballish stuff (my non-membership was never mentioned to Tribune readers, for example, and no one saw any need to) but the latest blasts involving the CCA and writers for the Idaho Reporter web site, carry implications worth sharing outside the Statehouse echo chamber.

The correspondents association, one of many similar organizations at statehouses around the country, is an odd beast. Its members are journalists who cover the legislature. A group aimed at letting people meet and associate is not a matter for controversy (Idaho lobbyists, by the way, have one too) But the CCA also has an official standing with the legislature, it negotiates, for example, where and when on chamber floors, and some other office space, journalists – not the public, and not lobbyists – can go.

All this had more significance once than it does now. I started covering the legislature using manual typewriters, and had to have needed a dedicated land line phone at a desk in the Statehouse. Now, the excellent and extremely productive Spokesman-Review reporter Betsy Russell (for years head of the CCA) jogs with her wireless computing devices from meeting to meeting, filing stories from events as they happen. The Statehouse has a good wireless system. That clunky comm of yore is irrelevant.

Even in 2001, I found no practical disadvantage functioning as a member of the public rather than a CCA member, and I see less difficulty with it now.

The Idaho Reporter battle, ongoing at least four sessions, involves the web site operated as an arm of the libertarian Idaho Freedom Foundation, which among other things lobbies; IFF leader Wayne Hoffman has been lobbying against the proposed state health insurance exchange, for example. The lobbying and ideological push of the IFF suggest that the Reporter site and its writers are not journalists in the same sense as conventional newspaper, wire and broadcast reporters. At the same time, those writers, like CCA members, do develop frequent and regular news reports about the legislature which are disseminated to the public. An Idaho Statesman column last week suggested one of the writers went “beyond the pale” in tweeting criticism of a legislator. CCA reporters, I can tell you, have over the decades from time to time breached the pale about as far. (As a CCA member I once devoted a newspaper column to the “worst legislator of the session.”) And Reporter writers been wearing badges that mimic the CCA-issued variety, which seems dishonest. They have been denied CCA membership.

Rather than battle over the CCA membership, I’d ask whether the CCA is really needed anymore. In 2001, I had a specific philosophical argument against joining it: That reporters should always see themselves as outsiders looking in, not the other way around. I know I felt more comfortable reporting on the legislature that way rather than as a legislature-linked, and reliant, accreditee. I’d feel about the same today as a reader, too.

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