Mary Burke denies access — again


By Mark Lisheron |

After being embarrassed for having the temerity to interfere with the work of the mainstream media at a Sept. 29 political rally in Milwaukee, a spokesman for gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke promised it wouldn’t happen again.

The Burke campaign, as far as I can tell from the mainstream coverage, kept its promise. No reporters working for traditional media were harmed in the making of the latest Burke lovefest with first lady Michelle Obama Tuesday in Madison.

STONEWALLED: Wisconsin Reporter was told it wasn’t part of the press when it tried to gain access to a Mary Burke rally.

It was harder to tell from our coverage because there wasn’t any. Melissa Baldauff, communications director for Wisconsin’s Democratic Party, gave our reporter, Adam Tobias, a mile-high dung heap of excuses for why he would not be getting credentials for the Madison rally.

But what it came down to was this. “Well, you’re not the press though, so, thanks,” Baldauff told Tobias before she closed a door on him.

And there it was, something Watchdog reporters have heard a lot over the past five years. You’d think after establishing itself with award-winning coverage from reporters issued real, honest-to-gosh press credentials from governments of 28 states this talk might abate.

But it won’t and, not to sound cynical, I’m betting it’s going to get worse. As I wrote last week, from the White House to city hall, there is a growing contempt for the press and the public. For the politician whose survival depends on manipulating or concealing the truth, no possible good can come of talking to a reporter.

A day after my commentary ran, Peggy Noonan nailed it in the Wall Street Journal. Politicians and bureaucrats have so successfully walled themselves off from daily life they don’t much care what you think of them.

“They’re running the show and if you don’t like it, too bad,” Noonan said. And she’s right because almost never are our government officials really, and I mean really, called to account for their evasions or their lies.

Among the many honorable and pressing reasons Watchdog exists is to demand that accountability. Yeah, that sounds a little like a promo for the folks who cut my paychecks, but our questions are the questions the others guys in the mainstream don’t ask often enough any more.

If those questions weren’t having the desired effect, Adam Tobias would have had his spot in the holding pen where politicians relish corralling reporters at big events.

Nobody missed Adam in the corral and that’s a damned shame. When Burke’s henchpersons told my friend, Meg Kissinger, with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she was not to interview rallygoers in Milwaukee, the media made sure it was a cause celebre.

The same people, good people, came to Adam’s defense Wednesday. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association. The Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Robert Drechsel, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

We thank you, not for helping us necessarily, but for helping warn the public it will pay a very high price indeed for abetting a system that allows Mary Burke or any other politician to decide who is press and who isn’t.

This is a point, I’m afraid, lost on some members of the WNA and SPJ who continue to think of themselves as the sole vessels of journalism, who think they know who should and shouldn’t be allowed to practice it.

Think what you will, but that argument has been over for quite a while. But while you’re toting up professional organization memberships, politicians are watching circulation numbers and salivating for the time when your complaint about asking questions at their rallies won’t much matter.

As the Milwaukee rally made clear, politicians protecting their message don’t much care what J-school you graduated from or what newspaper you work for. When they get to decide, you never know when someone’s going to tell you, “Well, you’re not the press though, so thanks.”