Lawmakers’ whispers, eyerolls, and other hints about the course of debate are no longer visible to journalists covering the state Senates in Kansas and Iowa.
In a break with decades of precedent, journalists in both states have been barred from the Senate floors, instead relegated to designated media galleries upstairs.
Mike Pirner, communications director for Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, denied the move had any First Amendment implications, telling CPJ that Kansas lawmakers made the change to better accommodate the increasing number of journalists covering the Senate.
In Iowa, lawmakers put the restrictions in place amid concerns about their ability to determine who is or is not a journalist given the proliferation of nontraditional media outlets, the Des Moines Register reported. (CPJ emailed the office of Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver for comment but did not receive a reply.)
However, local journalists say the changes have not only made their jobs more difficult – they now have to run after lawmakers to ask questions – but that they represent a move away from transparency.
CPJ interviewed Erin Murphy, the Des Moines bureau chief for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and president of the Iowa Capitol Press Association, and Sherman Smith, the editor in chief of the Kansas Reflector, a non-profit news website focused on Kansas politics, about the changes. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
What impact will barring journalists from the Senate floor have on journalists’ abilities to do their work effectively?
Erin Murphy: Effectively is the operative word there. At the end of the day, we can still do our jobs and we will continue to the best of our ability. But we can’t do them as well as we can when we’re on the floor. When we work from the press benches on the Senate and House floors, we have direct access to those lawmakers throughout a legislative session.
All these things that help inform our reporting and help our work so much better become infinitely more challenging when we’re in the upstairs gallery literally removed from those folks. Now we still flag them down and interact with them, but it’s just nowhere near as simple as when you’re right there and you’re working alongside them.
Why is this access important?
When we’re on the floor, those lawmakers are accountable to us because we can observe their work and communicate with them and challenge their work. When they’re accountable to us, by extension they’re accountable to the people of Iowa.
And we’re also accountable to [the lawmakers]. If they have an issue with a story that we wrote, they can walk right up to us and ask about that. [Recently] a senator came up to me in the House because we couldn’t have that conversation on the floor of the Senate. The legislator had concerns about what I’d written. I think both of us walked away with a better understanding of where the other sat. That’s the kind of stuff that we miss out on.
Why did lawmakers put these restrictions in place?
What we were told was that it has become increasingly difficult for Senate Republican leadership to define what is media in this day and age and to pick which reporters have access to those press benches.
That doesn’t hold water for us for a few reasons. Number one, as far as defining media, that’s something that sure, maybe can be a difficult conversation and we’ve had a similar conversation with our Iowa Capitol Press Association group about who can be considered members. But we had it, we didn’t just give up and say well, it’s too hard. It may be a difficult decision, but the Iowa House, governor’s office, and courts have figured it out.
As far as the finite number of seats, maybe that’s a challenge, I don’t know. Even if it is true, there are ways to work that out without throwing out the baby with the bathwater and saying that everybody has to work upstairs. Early in the [legislative] session, like when the governor gives the state address or on opening day, there are a number of reporters in the statehouse. But otherwise, I can tell you as someone who covers the session daily, the media seats are never full.
What do you think this means in terms of precedent in Iowa and beyond?
I’m worried about that. If this happens in one state and there are no repercussions for it, then it will start happening in other states, too. Maybe the House sees this and they could change their mind and decide to put us upstairs next year too. Maybe the governor’s office starts getting more selective with who they allow to come to press conferences. If this is allowed to go unchecked, it could be something that we see more and more of.
This isn’t about the media versus politicians, the media versus legislatures, we aren’t throwing a temper tantrum because we don’t have our nice comfy seats on the front row anymore. This is a big deal to us because it makes it much harder for us to do our jobs well.
How would you describe the relationship between Iowa lawmakers and local reporters?
The vast majority of the relationships between the Iowa state press corps and law makers have been pretty healthy over the years. I think a big part of that is that arrangement that we’ve had. We’re right there with them on the floor and constantly working with them and talking with them on a daily basis. They know us as reporters. They know that we will ask tough questions, but we’re also very fair in our coverage of them. When you take that out and remove us from that floor and remove our ability to foster and cultivate those relationships, now those lawmakers don’t know us. Now they don’t know who we are and maybe it’s a little easier for them to become defensive around us or angry at us and that doesn’t serve anybody that well.
Why is it important for journalists to have access to the Senate floor?
Sherman Smith: When you have direct access on the floor to the debates, there are better opportunities to talk directly to senators and to observe what’s happening, the nuances of the debate, why votes are happening the way they are. I feel like we’re the eyes and ears of folks all around the state who can’t watch five hours of YouTube streams [of Senate proceedings] and they depend on us to kind of distinctly at the end of the day tell them what happened, why it happened, how it happened, all of those usual things that journalists do. We can do that most effectively when we have direct access to the action. It’s a little bit harder to do that when we’re sitting in a balcony above and your best chance at trying to clarify something or getting a sense of what’s going on is to wait, race down the stairs, and try to grab somebody in the hallways as they’re rushing away from you.
Why did Senate leaders put these restrictions in place?
It’s difficult to say because the explanation they provided just doesn’t make sense. I don’t know if they were trying to antagonize reporters, or if they just didn’t care about reporters. But we do know that the explanation that there are more of us now than ever before just isn’t true and the idea that it doesn’t matter because we can watch the video stream or the view from the balcony above just speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of how we do our job.
Are you worried about the kind of signal that this restriction to access sends?
I do think that it’s an indicator that the Senate leadership right now is willing to take unprecedented action to limit access to reporters to erode the transparency of processes. We see what they’re trying to accomplish when a lot of people are watching. You just wonder what they would try to do if they could do it in the dark.
Is this an attempt from lawmakers to control the narrative so they can package their messages in a more favorable way?
Some lawmakers see the [Kansas Reflector] specifically as a threat because for some time now they’ve been the one and only voice within their communities about what’s happening in the statehouse. We allow any news outlet to reproduce our content for free, which means that there are people in small districts, small communities all over the state, who can read that what we’re reporting is not consistent with what the representative or senator is telling their constituents.
What are the big topics right now you’re focusing on and how does access impact your ability to report on these topics?
There are so many things going on right now that we’re tracking [from tax relief to hospital staffing crises, and taxes]. Throughout this, the opportunity to ask a clarifying question to better understand not just what’s happening, but the why and the how, that’s why it’s so important to have immediate access. And the observational things, where you can see who’s talking to who, that would be off camera, the tone of those conversations, whether or not people are trying to scramble to count votes or strongarm votes. All of those things can help our understanding of how a policy is coming into shape.
Editor’s note: The eighth paragraph has been updated to reflect Erin Murphy’s statement that journalists have worked from the press benches on the Senate and House floors.