Whose right is it to cover state government?


By Mark Lisheron | Watchdog.org

Readers of the Capital Times in Madison, Wis., had to be wondering why it swallowed up a canyon of space today explaining how tough it was for a couple of lefty groups to get Capitol press credentials.

They needn’t wonder. Nothing is quite as fascinating or as important to journalists as the concerns of journalists. I ought to know, having written about journalists and their concerns for nearly 20 years.

WHERE ARE YOU, SUPERMAN?: The number of statehouse reporters had dropped 35 percent in the past decade.

It would be a shame if readers couldn’t get past the belly button-ogling headline because looking past the lint there is a story buried there of pressing interest to all of us.

Almost four years ago, I wrote a rather lengthy story for American Journalism Review, one of a trio chronicling the precipitous decline of news coverage of state governments.

We built our series on polls that showed newspapers and television stations had pulled nearly a third of their reporters out of statehouses across the country.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report confirming AJR’s findings, saying the number of reporters covering your state officials has dropped 35 percent in the past decade.

The outlook isn’t promising, but it is hardly hopeless. The story I wrote for our series struck an encouraging, if uncertain, note, as I canvassed the journalism frontier for entrepreneurs elbowing their way back into capitol buildings.

None of those journalists seemed to know if they could find an audience or enough funding to keep going. But no one questioned the importance of their service to the public.

Watchdog.org is a leader in the march back into state capitol buildings.

Less than five years ago, state governments rebuffed the first Watchdog reporters who asked for professional credentials allowing them to walk their assembly floors and ask questions of their elected officials.

Who were these upstarts, these popinjays to invade the longstanding club of reporters working for newspapers and television? By what right could they call themselves journalists?

The debate is much older than Watchdog. It’s as old as the first blog. What the hell is journalism and who should be allowed to do it?

The Capital Times, despite suggesting the answer to that question is complex and confounding, would not have exhausted such energy on the subject had it not fervently believed the Union Labor News and the Devil’s Advocate radio show hosts qualify.

While you can’t quite tell why, exactly, the state won’t issue press credentials, the story hints broadly it’s the animus of the Republican administration of Gov. Scott Walker toward anything having to do with organized labor and its politics.

I might deplore the politics of the Union Labor News and Devil’s Advocate staff, but I fervently believe they qualify for press credentials.

My logic is contained in testimony I provided June 25 as an expert witness in a case brought before the Texas Ethics Commission by two state representatives who accused an Austin website of being a front for a lobbying organization. Their argument: the website, run by Michael Quinn Sullivan, has a point of view.

Sullivan is most emphatically an advocate of conservative political positions. His Empower Texans website is also one of the most important outlets for conservative news in Texas.

It’s a damned pity the left has spent so much energy discrediting news outlets with a conservative or free market point of view, like Watchdog.org, while giving lefty news sites like Daily Kos, Texas Observer here in Austin and The Progressive in Madison a pass.

Outstanding journalism like ours is being done on the right and the left every day whether anybody likes it, condones it or licenses it.

Point of view isn’t the problem. It’s that while the polling numbers say more people are urgently needed to cover our state governments, our state governments are capriciously deciding who may do it, using artificial and outmoded standards set by news outlets that are abdicating the duty.

Consider the alternative. Earlier this week the city of Davenport, Iowa, announced it would be launching its own digital newsroom, with its own reporters and its own website designer.

Don’t expect these new city employees to question whether it was appropriate to stick taxpayers with the $178,000 bill for the digital newsroom. With the City Council for an editorial board don’t expect anyone to question much of anything.

Just imagine little Pravdas like this in every state in the union, each paid for by you and each telling you only what your government wants you to know.

The same government, by the way, that is utterly incapable of handling the drafting of two lousy extra press credentials for a couple of lefty news outlets.