Should journalists who do their reporting online have the same access at the state Capitol that broadcast and print media enjoy? The issue is especially intriguing people interested in media and government. “It is a beaut,” said Minneapolis media attorney Mark Anfinson.
New media journalists have forced the issue by proposing a rule change that would add “online media” to the types of news outlets that can get credentials to work on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Who is a journalist? Where does government allow journalists to go to report the news? Those are questions that came up during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul, Anfinson notes, but the online-media question at the Capitol “focuses it more perfectly [with] a single geographical locus:” the House floor.
“Some legislators are really freaked out about liveblogging and live uplinks,” said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It’s nothing personal. … [They] want to continue to deal with the media [they] know. I can understand that.”
But those fears shouldn’t guide policy, Kirtley said. “There needs to be some rational basis by which a government entity can decide who’s going to be there.
“If the issue is decorum in the space, then the body should have rules of conduct,” Kirtley says, adding that doesn’t mean rules regarding the content of reporting. What might they be? Hughes says he can envision restrictions on tripods that take up space and could cause disruption as they’re taken down or set up. Kirtley offers the example of a ban on noisily changing video cassettes during proceedings. If it’s not followed, she said, “We can kick you out.”
“We’re looking at it. We don’t have an opinion,” said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU-MN). He said the organization might decide on a response to the issue today. Samuelson said he’d received about 20 e-mails on the issue.
“Because the discriminated class are wordsmiths, you get a tremendous amount of smoke,” he said, as with issues involving celebrities, like former Minnesota Viking Carl Eller’s recent run-ins with the law.
The ACLU may step in if the current rule violates the state or federal constitutions. But those don’t contain specific protections or guarantees for journalists. “The First Amendment is there to protect publishers,” Samuelson says. “As a journalist you have no more rights than John Q. Public. …
“If I were to say I’m going to put a rule in [that] I can only allow 20 people on the floor as observers, we’re going to assign these observers according to circulation [or Web hits] … then next year assign credentials depending on circulation range,” Samuelson said. “That ’s how I would do it: John Q. Public is represented by these [media outlets]. And at the beginning that’s basically what they did,” Samuelson said. “But the media’s blown up.”
Might the fuss put all media access to the House floor at risk? Anfinson, who represents news organizations across the state, thinks so, and Kirtley agrees it’s a risk.
Art Hughes, a radio reporter who like Kirtley serves on the state board of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), disagrees. “That’s not going to happen,” Hughes said. “There’d be a revolution.”