The Iowa State Capitol. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
The 2022 session of the Iowa Legislature will begin today, much as lawmakers have convened for most of the past 175 years: with speeches and ceremony, the reuniting of friends and the renewal of partisan enmity.
One significant difference: The Iowa Senate will exclude the Statehouse media from access to the floor of the chamber. This decision by the Senate Republican leadership breaks with more than 100 years of tradition and represents a gigantic barrier to citizens’ access to and understanding of the actions and activities of their elected leaders. The move was so startling, it made national news over the weekend.
Here’s why it should matter to you. When journalists cover the Legislature, as I’ve done for nearly 30 years, they rely heavily on real-time access to lawmakers and staff who can explain their intent with proposed legislation, offer technical explanations and context, and quickly correct any errors in stories published online. Reporting on issues that affect most Iowans’ lives, from taxes to school policy, is more complete and accurate when reporters can simply pull key lawmakers aside to ask questions. Having to set up interviews or catch lawmakers on the phone is simply not a substitute.
Lawmakers also benefit from real-time access to reporters. It fosters the creation of trust and rapport, which is mutually helpful. It provides lawmakers the opportunity to easily and quickly notify media of interesting or important developments with legislation they’re working on. And it allows lawmakers to hold journalists accountable for accuracy and fairness.
So why would Iowa Senate Republicans decide to eject reporters from the chamber after more than a century? According to an email from Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver’s spokesman and Senate Secretary Charlie Smithson, it was an inability to define “media”:
“As it relates to media seating, the principle (sic) dilemma faced by the Senate is the evolving nature and definition of ‘media.’ This is especially true in light of 1st Amendment concerns. As non-traditional media outlets proliferate, it creates an increasingly difficult scenario for the Senate, as a governmental entity, to define the criteria of a media outlet. Delegating the ability to define “media” to another entity is ultimately still government action. For that reason, media seating will remain in the designated areas in the galleries.”
It is true that non-traditional media are increasingly interested in covering the Iowa Legislature. Some would call Iowa Capital Dispatch “untraditional,” even though we publish in traditional newspapers and TV and radio websites all over the state as well as on our website. What Senate Republicans aren’t saying is they have tried, unsuccessfully, to exclude certain nontraditional media that report from a partisan point of view. This concern is shortsighted and misplaced, because shutting reporters out will never lead to more accurate or fairer reporting.
The fact is, the Iowa House, the governor’s office and the Judicial Branch, as well as most other states, Congress and federal agencies, have all managed to define “media” for purposes of covering government activities. We may not always agree with their definitions: Iowa House Republicans in particular have tried to write exclusionary media credential policies. As of this writing, at least two journalists have been denied seating on press row in the House without explanation. Even so, House leadership listened to the concerns of the Iowa Capitol Press Association and Statehouse media representatives and seated a majority of the press corps.
Furthermore, the Senate leadership can’t escape decisions about which media are allowed to attend news conferences and use the limited gallery facilities offered. (During the recent special session that had limited access due to COVID-19, this consisted of inadequate seating, lack of sightlines, muffled audio, nowhere to safely store expensive company equipment, unsafe stringing of extension cords and other dubious amenities.)
If Senate Republicans can’t manage to write a definition of media that passes constitutional muster, how can Iowans trust them to write complex legislation that overhauls the income tax, regulates controversial issues like gun rights and abortion, defines criminal behavior or addresses technical legal, medical and environmental issues?
If you want to know what your government officials are doing with your taxpayer money, consider calling or writing to Sen. Jack Whitver and asking him to reverse his decision to eject the media from the Senate chamber: 515-281-3560 or [email protected].
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