Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Future of Political Reporting Isn't

Three quick stories about government and politicians trying to control coverage.

The NYTimes reporter assigned to cover the Clintons, reports that one particular press aide at the Clinton Global Initiative was not only assigned to escort her to the restroom, "she waited outside the stall in the ladies' room."  Waiting at the restroom door in a crowded venue to escort her back to wherever the Clintons had gone I can almost understand.  But outside the stall door?  Seems more intimidating than helpful (or perhaps fearful that the reporter would slip a story past the normal review channels).  When Hilary's standard contract for giving speeches was leaked, it specified no press coverage or photography after a brief introduction (some speculated it was because she didn't want it to come out that she kept repeating the same speech to group after group). And the behavior isn't unique, the last few election cycles have provided a number of stories of press aides for Democratic candidates speaking at "fundraisers" of locking reporters in closets or restrooms.

Lack of press access at the White House has been a continuing drama over the last few years, to the point where the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) and major news organizations have filed a number of formal complaints about the lack of access to supposedly public events for both reporters and press photographers.  (My favorite was when a White House  ceremony promoting "transparency" was closed to the press).
The latest twist, though, is that the White House has started reviewing pool press reports before sending them out, and have insisted on the pool reporter making changes.  (The White House press office manages the email list of reporters and organizations that get the pool reports, and does the actual emailing.)
“The independence of the print pool reports is of utmost importance to us,” said Christi Parsons, a Los Angeles Times reporter who is the WHCA’s new president. “Our expectation is that the White House puts out the pool report and asks questions later.”
The issue is even more troubling given the fact that coverage of White House and Presidential events are increasingly restricted to the pool reporter.  Parsons added that she was assured this summer that the White House wouldn't meddle, but subsequent incidents show a White House still reviewing and insisting on changes (delaying release of the pool report by as much as a day).  Things have gotten to the point where the WHCA is investigating how it could manage pool report distribution itself, removing the White House press office from the process.

The third news item wasn't about the White House or political coverage explicitly, but still reflects a disturbing trend.  The US Forest Service (USFS), whose signs and statements keep telling us that the national forests and parks they oversee belong to us (the people of the U.S. and the world), seem to be taking another in a lengthy series of steps to restrict "our" use of "their" resources.  In this case, the USFS is proposing a new permanent rule to require media to get a permit to film and shoot photographs in national parks and forests.  The problem is that the USFS wants to make two significant changes to the existing rules.  First, to remove the exemption for "breaking news situations."  Second, to expand the USFS's authority to deny permits based on the nature and purpose of the project.  A spokesman for the National Press Photographers Association framed the issue succinctly: "What if they deny you a permit because they don't like the story you're working on?"  Steve Bass, head of Oregon Public Broadcasting, has a history of working with USFS on permits.  He understands that officials want to limit the impact large commercial shoots can have on the land, but cautions:
"Does the government get to decide what's newsworthy and what's not newsworthy? It's my understanding of the First Amendment that they don't get to decide that."

And that's the problem with all of these. Government and politicians have always sought to control news coverage.  Historically, the press pushes back, under the protection of the First Amendment.  Will they do so against politicians and agencies they favor as strongly as they do against politicians and agencies they don't like?

Sources - The Clinton team is following reporters to the bathroom.  Here's why that matters, Washington Post
Reporters say White House sometimes demands changes to press-pool reports, Washington Post
Forest Service wants media to obtain permits; move alarms First Amendment advocates, Montana Standard