One of the issues that has generated discussion within the press corps this legislative session is a bill to take away the offices and parking spaces at Missouri’s Capitol that are assigned to reporters who cover state government.
The bill sponsor told a committee he wanted to get more parking around the statehouse for people with disabilities. Just before this year’s session began, House staff proposed taking over part of the House press gallery for expanded House staff office space.
These issues touch on the special relationship between the media and government in this country that has led some to term those of us who cover state and federal government the “fourth branch of government.”
My foreign guests and my students often express surprise about the resources which government provides to us, free of charge.
Not only do we have parking near the Capitol and office space in the building, it’s rent free. We also have special seating in the House and Senate chambers.
In the Senate, our press table actually is on the floor of the Senate itself, right along side the desks of your elected senators. And just this year, the House allocated a press table next to the chamber floor for reporters, in addition to the press gallery that oversees the chamber.
Allocation of these kind of resources to government reporters is not unique to Missouri. In statehouses throughout the country and in the U.S. Congress, government reporters are provided similar resources to facilitate news coverage.
It’s a visible demonstration of the concept going back to the early days of our country that democracy requires the presence of an independent media watching over elected officials.
In most cases, government does not pick who gets these special resources. Instead, government reporters have formed organizations that credential media representatives — a concept that has led to the label of government reporters as “watch dogs.”
That prevents politicians from using resources, such as office space or rental rates, as leverage to try to influence coverage. It is the press corps itself, not government, which decides eligibility for resources.
This approach has a long history in our country. In Congress, the Standing Committee of Correspondents was founded in 1879 to oversee reporter resources. In Missouri, the Capitol News Association was founded in 1988.
Like the organization of our colleagues covering Congress, the Missouri organization has pretty strict rules about eligibility.
A news organization must not lobby nor engage in activist activities to influence government. The organization must serve a real audience of significant size. And, the organization must have a policy that assures journalistic independence.
An example of how those rules work arose when a business association sought approval from us for Senate press table access to facilitate production of their databases for business members.
We did not agree. They were not pursuing actual reporting, as our rules require, nor did they have a separate, independent news unit. And, they were providing information for business members, not for the general public.
In recent years, the emergence of Internet-based media has required that we adjust our standards. When reporting was limited to newspapers and broadcast stations, it was pretty easy to identify legitimate news-gathering organizations.
With Internet, it’s not so simple. How do you distinguish between an individual blogging for a few versus an organization like Missouri Digital News that serves a mass audience? How do you clearly distinguish what is reporting versus what is opinion writing?
I’m not sure we’ve yet come up with the ideal language to make those kind of distinctions. It’s a work in progress.
There is a practical reason for having a process for limiting access to press resources in the statehouse — there’s limited space. In fact, in Missouri’s Senate we currently have fewer seats at the press table than members of the Capitol News Association.
There’s an interesting history to our Missouri organization. The first effort to establish a formal body began a couple of decades earlier when a few of us decided we should ask lobbyists to stop dropping off liquor bottles at the press rooms each Friday. As I wrote in an earlier column, the press corps storage closet had become jamed with hundreds of dollars of unused scotch and whiskey.
Our proposal, however, met strong resistance from some of our colleagues. They thought journalists should not organize or take formal positions, even on issues that directly affected us. That internal dissension was so emotional that it delayed for years the creation of a formal statehouse press corps organization in Missouri.
Even the cost-free nature of the resources provided to us has caused some unease.
Years ago, a Kansas City Star reporter thought we ought to pay for parking and asked the administration to charge a parking fee. The administration refused because, they said, they had no basis upon which to determine a fair price.
So, for years that reporter would make a “contribution” to the Natural Resources Department for what he thought was a fair cost for his press parking outside the Capitol Building.
As always, let me know (at firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.