The 2022 session of the Iowa Legislature will begin today, just as lawmakers have gathered for most of the past 175 years: with speeches and ceremonies, the reunion of friends, and the renewal of the partisan enmity.
One significant difference: The Iowa Senate will exclude Statehouse media from access to the chamber floor. This decision by the Republican leadership of the Senate breaks with more than 100 years of tradition and represents a gigantic barrier to citizens’ access and understanding of the actions and activities of their elected officials. The move was so surprising that it made national news over the weekend.
Here’s why it should interest you. When reporters cover the Legislative Assembly, as I have done for almost 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 the articles. published online. Reporting on the issues that affect the lives of most Iowa residents, from taxes to school politics, is more complete and accurate when reporters can simply push aside key lawmakers to ask questions. Having to hold talks or catching lawmakers on the phone is just not a substitute.
Lawmakers also benefit from real-time access to journalists. It promotes the creation of trust and relationships, which is mutually beneficial. It offers legislators the ability to easily and quickly inform the media about interesting or important developments in the legislation they are working on. And it allows lawmakers to hold journalists accountable for accuracy and fairness.
So why would Republicans in the Iowa Senate decide to expel reporters from the chamber after more than a century? According to an email from spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver and Senate Secretary Charlie Smithson, it was about a failure to define “media”:
“When it comes to media seats, the primary dilemma (sic) facing the Senate is the evolving nature and definition of ‘media’. This is especially true in light of 1st Amendment problems. As non-traditional media proliferate, this creates an increasingly difficult scenario for the Senate, as a government entity, to define the criteria for a medium. Delegating the ability to define “media” to another entity ultimately remains a government action. For this reason, media seats will remain in the designated areas of the galleries. “
It is true that the non-traditional media are increasingly interested in coverage of the Iowa Legislature. Some would call Iowa Capital Dispatch “non-traditional,” even though we post in mainstream newspapers and statewide TV and radio websites and on our website. What Senate Republicans do not say is that they have tried, unsuccessfully, to exclude some non-mainstream media that deals with a partisan perspective. This concern is short-sighted and misplaced, because excluding journalists will never lead to more accurate or fair reporting.
The point is that Iowa House, the governor’s office and the judiciary, as well as most other states, Congress and federal agencies, have all succeeded in defining “media” for the purpose of covering the activities of the government. government. We may not always agree with their definitions: Republicans at Iowa House in particular have tried to write policies to exclude media credentials. As of this writing, at least two journalists have been denied a seat in the press lane in the House without explanation. Despite this, House leadership listened to the concerns of media representatives from the Iowa Capitol Press Association and Statehouse and sat down a majority of the press.
In addition, Senate leadership cannot escape decisions about which media are allowed to attend press conferences and use the limited gallery facilities offered. (During the recent special session which had limited access due to COVID-19, this consisted of inadequate seating, lack of sight lines, muffled sound, no place to safely store corporate equipment expensive, dangerous threading of extension cords and other questionable equipment.)
If Senate Republicans fail to craft a constitutionally-compliant definition of media, how can the people of Iowa trust them to draft complex legislation that revises income tax, regulates controversial issues such as gun rights and abortion, define criminal behavior or address technical legal, medical and environmental issues?
If you want to know what your government officials are doing with your taxpayer’s money, consider calling or writing Senator Jack Whitver and asking him to reconsider his decision to kick the media out of the room. Senate: 515-281-3560 or [email protected].