Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stalkerazzi to the left of me, stalkerazzi to the right, here I am 

Most regular readers know I do not do many national political issues on this blog. It isn't for lack of interest, but there are so many other blogs out there spending more time doing that, that it doesn't seem a good use of my time. Economic issues and state/local politics are more my game.

But there are times where they coincide, and the story of using what a politician or elected official in a private function for the purpose of either embarrassing them or trying to catch them saying something that can be used against them is playing right now at both a national and local level.

You'd have to live in a cave not to have heard by now of Barack Obama's comments about the motivations of people who carry guns or are religious. And if you recognize the term I used in the title of this post, you probably are aware of the use of videos and PhotoShop to try to humiliate local elected officials, most notably Rep. Michele Bachmann. The natural reaction to me of both campaigns is to do a better job of controlling the environment in which the politicians speak.

In Obama's case there was the belief that the environment was controlled. The event was a $1000 per person event, and the attendee who reported the story had been a supporter (though, in fairness, we note that some claim her support was false.) She had recording equipment and, in a group that was supposed to be full of supporters, she heard something that got her to post something that might cost Obama the election.

I wonder if the supporter with the recorder was instead a reporter at the St. Cloud Times. The reporter sent to cover the Sixth Congressional District GOP Convention had been told that no video or audio of the event was to be allowed. As John Bodette, the paper's executive editor, relates the story, this was just another skirmish in the "battle in our effort to cover news."

In today's media world, reporters can do their work using more than a notebook and pen. Our staffers can cover a news story with words, still photos, audio and video. These restrictions on what equipment reporters can use is an abridgment of the journalist's effort to cover the news.

The reasons for the audio/video ban are baffling.

It appears that Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Republican incumbent, has shown up in several YouTube.com videos in less than flattering ways because people altered the video. To avoid giving people more fodder to make fun of the first-term House member, the district's executive committee decided to block any audio or video from the convention sessions.

The committee also decided to bar video and audio because more than 90 people were scheduled to go to the microphones and speak during the endorsement sessions, Swanson said. Some of those people may have been nervous and said things they later regretted, Swanson said.

He compared it to a family picnic. And you don't want news cameras showing up at a family picnic, he said.

I consider the editorial staff at the Times to be friends, but I am troubled by this editorial. Let's take note first of Bodette's use of the word "can" in how Larry Schumacher "can do his work" in covering the convention. He was a witness; he wrote columns and his blog. He was just told one of the tools that he might use to cover the convention was not to be used. That might have made his job more difficult, but it didn't make it impossible, obviously.

Second, and perhaps more important, is whether it is healthy for the political process to have the space in which it operates continually shrunk, invaded by cameras, recorders and live feeds. The Times has made it a habit to complain about private working meetings of the City Council. I can see the point that when a government is sitting in deliberation doing "the work of the people" (or is that "working the people over"?) that the Fourth Estate might think it should be able to provide coverage. But a political rally or a party convention not only is not a deliberation over the use of force, it is in fact part of another part of the First Amendment, "
the right of the people peaceably to assemble." The question is, is that right subservient to the First Amendment rights of the press?

And note again, as John does: Unlike the deliberations in working meetings of the City Council, the entire convention was open in plain sight to Schumacher. The comparison is terribly strained, and quite misleading. (See update below)

If the claim is that public officials will speak in this private group and that their publicness makes their speech "a news event," then where stands the line that allows the governor or the senator the opportunity to speak privately with supporters? Does the representative have the right to sit in a public restaurant with three friends who also contributed to her last election and say to the person from Dump Jane Doe that "this is a private conversation"? If they said you could take notes but no cameras, would this warrant a vituperative editorial from your boss?

John Bodette acknowledges that he has no legal claim to access, but says that because it's a news event, the paper should be able to cover it as it sees fit. He makes a statement asking whether Rep. Bachmann "supported the decision" to ban audio and video. Why should she or any one else give up their protected right to assemble peacefully, and why should a newspaper decide it can interfere with that decision simply by calling it a "news event" and insisting to bring in whatever equipment it chooses?

John notes at the end that the DFL has invited his cameras and audio into their district convention. Nice bit of advertising there, and nice bit of gamesmanship by the party. I don't necessarily agree with the CD 6 GOP decision, but it's their right to make it, and a statement of the sorry state of decorum that has come over political coverage of some political candidates. Maybe the question the print media needs to ask itself is whether it has become
"the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth on the floor." Because the others there with the cameras surely are, and sometimes they're even your supporters.

UPDATE: Larry Schumacher informs me that the City Council's working sessions are open to the public but were not broadcast like the Council's regular meetings. I will ask whether you could bring the video and audio equipment to it and posted the materials. I see no such recordings on the Times video site.

UPDATE 2: Larry points out they are sitting on the paper's opinion page.

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