Freedom of the press but not in MN House of Representatives

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After being taken to task for refusing to recognize on-line media as journalists, the House of Representatives stumbled toward the 21st century last week, but didn’t quite make it. For those who haven’t been following the controversy, the House threw out video reporters for on-line media, barring them from committee hearings and saying that on-line media were not entitled to press credentials.

Representative Tony Sertich (D-Chisholm), chair of the House Rules Committee explained:

“If it’s somebody who designs their own Web site and comes down to the Capitol, … we could be deluged with www.anybody.com walking through the door saying, ‘I’m the online media, let me have floor access.’ You think the House chamber is a ruckus … now, wait till all the bloggers get here and show up en masse.”

For more on this topic, see:

Online media lobby for equal access to Minnesota House floor, Minnesota Independent

Online media access to state House falls prey to ‘procedural gimmicks’, Minnesota Independnet

New media quandry: Should online-only journalists be granted access to the state House floor?, Minnesota Independent

Open letter from Society of Professional Journalists

At the end of a couple of weeks of debate — in the on-line media, mostly ignored by the legacy media — the House of Representatives came up with a new form called “An Application for Video/Audio Recording during a House Committee Hearing.” (Thanks to Marty Owings of Radio Free Nation for the form.) The two-page form requires information about the journalist’s employer, and “the organization with whom you are affiliated,” the “areas of news” that the organization reports on, affiliations with professional media organizations, and “the long-term nature of your assignment.”

But the real kicker comes on page 2, where the form requires the applicant to promise that “your work is to tape a full committee hearing, and not individual members” and to agree not to videotape audience members or interactions before the committee convenes or after the committee adjourns.

Let’s see — that means that if an audience member pulls out a gun and starts shooting committee members, the intrepid video reporter may not film this? And if the shooting occurs before committee convenes, the same intrepid video reporter may not film the bleeding committee members?

Or — less dramatically, but more likely — if a group of demonstrators disrupted the committee meeting, the video reporter would be barred from filming this event. If a committee member gave a speech to visiting high school students after the hearing adjourned, this would also be off-limits.

What is the point of this restriction and, indeed, of the whole kerfuffle over credentials for on-line media? It’s quite simple: to protect government officials from scrutiny. And that’s precisely what the First Amendment is about. The reason for guaranteeing freedom of the press is not to establish a privileged group called journalists, but rather to make sure that the government officials are NOT able to keep the press from reporting on their activities.

The objection that on-line journalists are not “real” journalists is nonsense. If anyone needs a demonstration that on-line and independent journalists ARE journalists they need look no further than the gavel-to-gavel recount coverage by The Uptake, or the daily, consistent news coverage of the community provided by the Minnesota Independent and the Twin Cities Daily Planet and MinnPost.

On-line journalists — and even www.anybody.com — must be free to report on the shenanigans on Capitol Hill. That’s the whole point of the First Amendment.

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