President’s Column

Statehouse reporting, the 1st Amendment and more…

By Betsy Russell

For almost two years, I’ve served as the head of a rather obscure group, the Capitol Correspondents Association. It’s not a club. It’s the credentialing entity for Statehouse reporters created by the Legislature in Joint Rule 14 of the House and the Senate.

Why would the Legislature designate a group of reporters to credential reporters? As former Times-News publisher and current state Rep. Steve Hartgen pointed out eloquently in a recent joint leadership meeting, it’s because of the 1st Amendment. Because we have freedom of the press in this country, the government doesn’t create, sanction or credential the press; we, the press, do that ourselves.

The Legislature needed an entity to assure that only bona fide news organizations, as opposed to lobbying or advocacy groups, access the press seats on the floor of the House and Senate, because lobbyists are specifically prohibited from entering that area during sessions of the House or Senate other than by the specific invitation of a senator or representative. Members of the press, credentialed by the Capitol Correspondents Association, specifically are allowed that access in order to report to the public on what’s going on in the Legislature’s sessions. The public, also, is granted access to all sessions through public galleries and live broadcasts both on the Internet and on Idaho Public Television; secret sessions are prohibited by our state Constitution.

So, why does this come up? This organization has been out there since long, long before my time. Among the illustrious journalists to head the group in the past are my immediate predecessor, Greg Hahn of the Idaho Statesman; his immediate predecessor, Mike Wickline of the Lewiston Tribune; and others including Quane Kenyon, Marcia Franklin, Rod Gramer and many more. Most states have similar organizations. Idaho’s association bylaws state that dues are set by vote of the membership; they’ve been $5 a year per correspondent since at least 1975. Some states charge as much as $50 per year; some states charge nothing.

This year, two issues have come up with regard to the Capitol Correspondents Association. First, KTVB-TV raised vehement objections to the $5 dues, questioning what they get for the money, whether their money would be mismanaged, and whether it’s moral to “charge for access” to covering something that’s public. They noted that they didn’t have to pay for press credentials for the Fiesta Bowl.

For the money, credentialed correspondents get access to press seats on the floor and to a press work space during the session, which is located in the basement of the state Capitol, as well as access to Idaho Public Television’s “Legislature Live” feed for use in news reporting. They are entitled to wear the “brown badge” that tells the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House and Senate they are credentialed correspondents. (Badges are color-coded in the state Capitol; for example, lobbyists wear green badges.)

Expenditures from dues funds this year have included items necessary to outfit the new press room, including a $150 cable drop, power strips, cord covers, a microwave, a coffee maker, and two thrift shop TVs that are providing in-house feeds to the press room of House, Senate and budget committee action (we would have purchased and mounted flat-screens as was done elsewhere in the renovated Capitol, but of course the funds aren’t sufficient). There likely will be more expenses along these lines as the furnishing of the new press room is completed; for any correspondents who haven’t paid their dues, their  $5 would be greatly appreciated by their fellows.

The second issue related to credentialing. Wayne Hoffman contacted me prior to the session to tell me that his new Idaho Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank, planned to hire reporters to cover the session and to ask if they could be credentialed as capitol correspondents. I told him I didn’t think so, but I would check the bylaws. I did, and they did not qualify; the association’s Standing Committee unanimously agreed. Wayne and I met several times to discuss this. The relevant section of the bylaws, defining a news organization, says:

Article 3: Definitions

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.

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.

Unhappy with the decision to deny credentials, Wayne asked to appeal to the membership. His reporters and editor did so at the association’s annual meeting this year, stated their case, and answered questions. The membership voted unanimously to uphold the decision of the Standing Committee. There was no antipathy toward these new members of the Statehouse press corps; the correspondent who made the motion prefaced it with “with great respect.” The type of organization simply doesn’t fit the bylaws.

Mike Tracy, formerly of the Idaho Farm Bureau, also spoke to the association’s annual meeting, saying that after the Idaho Farm Bureau’s reporters were similarly denied credentials in the 1990s, they secured a special type of access from the legislative leadership that even permitted them to attend closed caucus meetings. This was the first any of us had heard of that. I had spoken earlier with Jake Putnam, who currently reports for the Farm Bureau, and he assured me that they don’t feel their reporting on the Legislature is hampered by their lack of correspondent credentials; the Farm Bureau is a lobbying organization that also does news reporting, and makes its reporting available to the media.

A week or two after the membership vote, I was summoned to a meeting of the joint Republican leadership of the House and Senate, a meeting Wayne had requested regarding credentialing of his organization’s reporters. The legislative leaders also asked Rep. Hartgen to attend and share his wisdom from his 35 years in the newspaper business. After more than an hour of questions, answers and discussion, the joint leadership declined to take any action.

During the leadership meeting, one of the Senate leaders asked Wayne if he’d consider strengthening the “Chinese wall” between his advocacy organization and its news reporting arm; he replied that he did not want to do that, something he’d already told me in our earlier meetings before the session. That is the heart of the conflict with the credentialing rules.

I’d like to say that I, for one, am thrilled that there are additional reporters covering the Legislature – the more information that gets out there about what’s going on in our state Capitol, the better.

Betsy Russell is a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review, and is president of the Idaho Press Club.