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Reporters and Politicians: How Close Do They Need to Be?

Some legislatures have been banning reporters from their lawmaking chambers. But given how statehouse coverage has changed in recent decades, the reality is that we've simply traded one flawed system for another.

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Interior of the Iowa state Capitol. (David Kidd/Governing)
A few weeks ago, the Iowa Senate made a surprising move — it decided to ban reporters from the Senate floor. The stated reason was that there were so many bloggers and other nontraditional journalists roaming the chamber that it was hard for the leadership to figure out who was legitimate and who wasn’t. There was immediate criticism from news organizations that had long enjoyed free chamber access. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council complained that “it makes it that much harder for the public to know what’s going on.” The Iowa Capitol Press Association called the move “discouraging and unprovoked.”

Iowa isn’t the first state legislature in recent years that has shooed the press out of its territory. In 2016, journalists were denied access to the Arizona House floor. It was explained as a security move, but reporters noted that the House speaker, who instituted the new policy, had been the target of some recent stinging press coverage. The decision was reversed shortly afterward. That same year, the president pro tem of the Missouri Senate made a similar decision. His reason was that reporters had published the contents of private conversations they happened to hear while standing on the Senate floor. That was eventually modified as well. Currently, in a majority of states, reporters can enter the chamber floor but have to sit at a designated press table or in a “press box.” They can’t just wander around and buttonhole the members.

Any restrictive move in regulating press access is bound to generate significant blowback from news outlets that long enjoyed virtually unlimited access to legislators and their workspace. But how much damage does it do to ordinary citizens who want to know what their elected representatives are up to? That’s a more complicated question than it might seem.

The fact is that many of the large states have never allowed reporters the privilege of roaming around the chamber at will. It’s the smaller states, and particularly western ones, that have traditionally given reporters free rein. I remember standing in the outer lobby of the Colorado House in the 1980s, presenting my business card and asking a doorkeeper if I could talk to one of the members. “She’s sitting at her desk,” the man told me. “You can go right in.”

I was astonished at the informality. I was used to covering the U.S. House of Representatives, where you walked up to a doorkeeper, showed him your card and asked if a member would come out to see you.

A few of them wouldn’t come out to talk under any circumstances. You soon learned to cross them off your list. A bunch of them came out all smiles and then preceded to lie through their teeth. One highly respected congressman answered my question about lobbyists by telling me he didn’t have any contact with them. I never bothered him again. But most of the members I asked to see were gracious and reasonably candid — they were bored by the lack of activity inside and were glad to get away for a little while. You could learn a lot from them, and you could print most of it.

I never felt I would have done much better if I were parked in the chamber instead of nearby in the open Speaker’s Lobby. My experience in the old days and the recent events in Iowa bring up the interesting question of how close to each other reporters and politicians really need to be. That invites a little dip into modern journalistic history.

WHEN I FIRST STARTED COVERING POLITICS for Congressional Quarterly in the 1970s, one of my jobs was to keep track of what was going on at the state level. The best way to do this was to place a phone call to one of the state’s veteran political reporters. This was invariably someone who had been following the state capitol and the legislature for two or three decades. These guys not only hung around the legislative chambers — they ate, drank and gossiped with the leading politicians. Most of the time they knew just about everything worth knowing, and they were nearly always ready for a long conversation with me on the phone.

But I quickly learned something interesting about these men: They didn’t publish what they knew. Putting their insights in the paper would have reduced their access to the lawmakers they covered. In some cases, it would have cut them off altogether. And this was what they dreaded more than anything else. It had taken them many years to establish their roles as trusted political insiders. This was more important to them than the free flow of sensitive information.

One afternoon, for example, I had a candid conversation with Don Lynch of the Nevada State Journal, who was widely regarded as the best-connected political reporter in the state. I asked him about the governor’s chances for re-election. That was an easy one. “I just had dinner with him last night,” Lynch told me. "It’s going to be a piece of cake.” I got off the phone and wrote a short item recapitulating what Lynch had told me. I was astonished a few days later when I saw a story in the State Journal saying the same thing — and attributed to me. Lynch didn’t want to print even mildly sensitive political intelligence under his own byline.

And that’s the way it was with nearly all the experienced political reporters I came into contact with. The best way to learn from them was to have an off-the-record conversation. The worst way was to read what they wrote.

When it comes to covering state politics, we live in an entirely different world now. Reporters don’t stay tethered to legislatures or state government for their careers. Journalists parachute into state capitols for a few months when the legislature is in session; in most cases they are relative novices whose grounding in the political scene is sketchy at best. They don’t develop close ties to the politicians they cover; often they hardly know them at all. This makes far more difference than whether they cover the sessions from an upstairs gallery or from the floor of the chamber. Obviously it’s not an ideal situation.

But there’s one thing to be said for this arrangement, and it’s not entirely trivial. When a greenhorn reporter covering a legislature finds something interesting, as even greenhorns sometimes do, even something embarrassing to the leadership, he or she can print it. They have little incentive to keep something juicy out of the public record to protect a source. Their incentive is to write something provocative that will capture the attention of the editors back home.

This may not happen very often. The reality is that today’s statehouse reporters, often working in one-person bureaus, run themselves ragged during their time at the legislature trying to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle. But whatever they can find out, they are pretty much free to print. We have traded a system that operated on personal access for one that works, when it works, on occasional enterprise.

So the decline in personal relationships between reporters and politicians isn’t exactly a tragedy. We have traded one flawed system for an entirely different one with an entirely different set of flaws. Whether the general public has gained or lost in this exchange turns out to be another troublesome issue.

IF YOU ARE A CASUAL NEWSPAPER OR WEBSITE READER, it’s indisputable that your access to political news, at least beneath the federal level, has declined dramatically in the past couple of decades. The news stories that used to appear on newspaper front pages rarely turn up there anymore. They weren’t especially insightful stories, mostly routine recitations of the previous day’s public events, but at least they existed. Now, for the most part they don’t. Casual readers have less access to political news than they did even in the days of the knowledgeable but reticent veteran reporters.

If you are a politics aficionado, however, you have more access to this information than ever. All 50 states now transmit webcasts of their floor proceedings. At least 24 of them put their debates on television. Blogs in every state make an effort to explain what it means, admittedly from an often ideological point of view. For these politics buffs, we are not in any sort of Dark Age when it comes to political information.

Of course, you need to care a great deal and have the time to pay close attention. We have gone from an era when most people knew a modest amount about state politics to one in which a small number of people know a lot and the rest of the American public knows scarcely anything.

I wouldn’t argue that this is a better system than the one we had before. I would only suggest that its success doesn’t much depend on whether the dwindling number of statehouse reporters are roaming the floor of the chamber or are perched in a gallery high above the proceedings.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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