Monday, March 02, 2009

Senate rules for press oligarchs 

On Saturday's Final Word we had KNSI program director and talk host Dan Ochsner, more often known around St. Cloud as simply The Ox. Dan had reported to me on Thursday last week that he had had his press credentials to the floor of the Minnesota State Senate revoked after holding them for many years. Here's a Google cache of the 2006 press booklet for the senate. It contains KNSI entries for Ox and for former news director Cory Kampschroer. The 2009 book, in contrast, has an entry for KNSI in its table of contents, but nobody from KNSI is listed. (I listed the Google cache just in case the other book is disappeared.) The new book was printed Feb. 5 according to the properties of the Adobe document, a month after the opening of the Senate. This was the same week, it appears, that Ox was denied access to the Senate. (Worth noting here: credentials are a hard plastic badge which are renewed. Ox reported sending in his request for renewal; no additional badge was expected.)

Dan has been an officer of professional radio organizations through the AP and held credentials for many years. His biography includes being past president, Minnesota Associated Press Broadcasters (2000-01) and a news or program director since 1999 in Detroit Lakes and St. Cloud.

It was not the Ox's first visit to St. Paul this year. He broadcast, it appears, from the Minnesota House on January 7. At that time nobody had informed him that his credentials to the senate were being pulled. He had, as usual gone to do a show at the opening of the legislature (as Gary reported) and had, among other things, discussed the amount of per diem money received by Senator Tarryl Clark.

Did this have anything to do with Ochsner's credentials being pulled? He reported on the air that he was told that the Senate had decided to focus their floor privileges to reporters who were more often at the capitol (Dan's show makes a monthly appearance, though he says he visits the capitol more often than that.) He was informed that this came from Clark and DFL Senate leader Larry Pogemiller. When Sen. Clark subsequently was interviewed on Ox's show, she was questioned about this. At one point she is reported to have said that she thought his listeners were not interested in this subject and that Ox should move on. Ox's response was that he knew his listeners, and that they were interested.

Readers are probably aware that in her successful special election campaign in December 2005, Senator Clark's opponent was none other than Ox. It's noteworthy that she continued to do his show even after the credential was pulled. The ostensible reason -- that there's too much traffic on the Senate floor, flies in the face of the evidence, insofar as a new organization that is not a radio, TV, or print outlet, The Uptake, holds five credentials. Is access for that group more important than for out-state news organizations? Does the Senate not respect the journalism of people who are outside the Twin Cities? (Notable silence from the one remaining St. Cloud journalist with full access.)

There is a particular issue, perhaps, between Ox and Clark. Perhaps; I'm not as interested in that. Later in the show Marty Owings, who probably agrees with nothing I blog here, called in to say his work as a journalist was equally hampered in the House. (Chris Stellar reports on this in MnIndy.) His story, that Rep. Tony Sertich had used a procedural trick to restrict access to online media, was the point where I decided this has to be discussed. (h/t on Marty goes to Mitch.) He appears in Hour 2 of the Final Word broadcast of 2/28.

The Society of Professional Journalists has spoken out in favor of online journalists, but not yet, as far as I can tell, for Ox.

If the Legislature is concerned about the conduct of individual reporters, existing rules and procedures can be utilized. If the problem is one of space, then the criteria for distributing media passes should be equitable for all journalists, not arbitrarily discriminatory based on an outlet�s medium.

The Minnesota Independent quotes House Rules Committee Chair Tony Sertich as saying a rule change to allow online media would open access to anybody. In fact, the change gives open access to everybody, which is the best and most credible means of government accountability in a democracy.

Indeed. Dear SPJ, let me take you to a page that I would say summarizes the problem here. This is the temporary rules of the Senate. Lines 10.8-10.16 state:
16.1 The Secretary shall provide space for news reporters on the Senate floor in limited numbers, and in the Senate gallery. Because of limited space on the floor, permanent space is limited to those news agencies that regularly cover the legislature, namely: The Associated Press, St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Legal Ledger, Star Tribune, Duluth News-Tribune, The Forum, Rochester Post-Bulletin, St. Cloud Times, WCCO radio, KSTP radio, Minnesota Public Radio, and Minnesota News Network. The Secretary shall provide an additional two spaces to other reporters if space is available. One person from each named agency and one person from the Senate Publications Office may be present at the press table on the Senate floor at any time. Other news media personnel may occupy seats provided in the Senate gallery.
The italics are mine. By what right does the Senate get to restrict access to this oligarchic structure of media? Why are certain groups privileged? (And indeed, why are these called "press privileges"? A freedom is not a privilege.) Where are the First Amendment advocates? Who decides which of these agencies are named and which are not? If you favor open access for everybody, dear SPJ, strike this list.

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