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Kansas alternative media shut out of legislative access

Earlier this year, during the Kansas legislative session, I became interested in receiving press credentials from the Kansas Legislature. This, I thought, would make covering news made in the statehouse easier.

The issuance of legislative press credentials is handled, in alternating years, by the Senate President and the Speaker of the House. This year is the Senate President’s year. So in March I stopped by the office of the President of the Senate, and upon making my inquiry I was told by a staff member that my request would not be considered. The reason for that, I was told, is that my publication isn’t printed on paper.

Not satisfied with that, I made inquiry to Michael White, who is chief of staff for Senate President Stephen Morris.

In a recent telephone conversation with White, I was told that I’m not the only person who has inquired about press credentials. As a result, White hopes to develop a policy for the issuance of press credentials by this fall.

White said that for now, the primary reason for not allowing bloggers like me press credentials is lack of space on the Senate floor.

Mentioning my blog and the Kansas Jackass (a widely read “progressive” blog) specifically, he also said that the floor of the Senate has never been opened to, in his words, “partisan media.”

He also wondered what the impetus is for wanting floor access. Gallery access is available to bloggers and alternative media, just as it is to the public.

In an email I had sent to White (see below) I had wondered how a distinction could be made between Hawver’s Capitol Report (which has press credentials) and Kansas Liberty, which was turned down it its request for credentials. White said that partisanship is the key distinction. An additional factor is the ability of readers to post comments to articles on Kansas Liberty. Commenting is a consideration for blogs, too, according to White.

As a result, the Senate President’s Office is “not inclined” to issue credentials at this time.

We need to ask this question: Are the issues raised by White valid and legitimate concerns?

Is there a lack of space on the senate floor? Speaking with one Kansas statehouse reporter and several senators, I learned that sometimes the chairs in the press area on the Senate floor are full. But mostly, they’re not.

The issue of partisanship is a non-issue, too. When White said the Senate floor has not been open to partisan media, I should have asked if he meant overtly partisan media, as many in Kansas feel — correctly or not — that some newspapers in Kansas display a distinct bias towards one end of the political spectrum.

Whether or not you agree with that, here’s this fact: opinion writers in traditional media have been granted credentials. I spoke with Phillip Brownlee, opinion editor for the Wichita Eagle. He doesn’t currently hold a press credential at the statehouse, but editorialists at the Eagle have in the past. Being editorial writers, they, of course, express opinions.

Another thing that doesn’t make sense is the ability to post comments to stories or blog posts as a distinguishing factor. Most major newspapers in Kansas allow reader comments to stories and opinion pieces. Some have blogs whose major reason for existence is to gather reader opinion.

As for why I want press credentials: Several legislators told me that being on the floor of the Senate and House would be a big advantage in news reporting. It’s a factor that would let alternative media better serve their readers.

There is one important issue that White didn’t mention, but Tim Carpenter of the Topeka Capital-Journal did. That is, some advocacy groups that lobby the legislature also do news reporting and have blogs. If the floor of the House and Senate were open to them, they could lobby legislators right on the floor as votes are taken. This isn’t possible now, as lobbyists are prohibited from being on the floor of either chamber.

I believe that if we think about it, we could overcome this problem.

As shown in reporting by Paul Soutar and an editorial by Dave Trabert, both of the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy, Kansas lags badly in government openness and transparency. A notable exception Kansans can be proud of is KanView.

While the denial of press credentials by the office of the Senate President is not an open records issue, it is another way in which our state government makes it clear that citizen input and scrutiny is not welcome.

Here’s the email I sent to White, making the case for press credentials for alternative media:

As traditional media face declining resources and readership, alternative media are stepping in to help provide news and information to Kansans. Blogs like mine (Voice For Liberty in Wichita) and others such as The Kansas Jackass, Kansas Supreme Court Blog, Kansas Progress, and Kansas Meadowlark may have tens of thousands of readers each month.

Then, there are the new online sites that aren’t blogs, but provide valuable news services that are changing journalism in Kansas. Kansas Liberty is the most prominent example. Now, the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy in Wichita has hired an investigative journalist.

Alternative media in Kansas is growing. We need the type of access that is granted to traditional media.

In a previous email to me, you expressed this concern: “What would stop anyone from starting a blog site to get access to Senate floor?”

The answer is that it’s a lot of work to have a blog or news site. The sites listed above, plus maybe a handful of others, represent all the serious political bloggers in Kansas, meaning those who post on a regular basis. Some of these are operated by people who have full-time jobs and can’t spend a lot of time at the statehouse.

But the real consideration is this: Isn’t more news and information a good thing? I think it would be great if there was such interest in Kansas government that the press area was full of reporters, instead of being mostly empty, as I am told.

There’s also a consideration of equity. It is difficult for me to distinguish between KansasLiberty.com (whose request for press credentials was turned down) and Hawver’s Capitol Report. Both are publications that are available online only. Both have subscribers who pay substantial fees, $100 annually for KansasLiberty.com; $200 annually for Hawver’s. Why is it that one has press credentials and the other doesn’t?

It’s time to give Kansas alternative media the access and privileges they’ve earned.

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10 Comments

  1. Benjamin Hodge June 25, 2009

    Bob,

    Great efforts. Thank you for them.

    One question of clarification: If I understand your article correctly, White considers it a NEGATIVE that readers are able to post comments on a Web site? Why is that even a consideration — on top of that, a negative one?

  2. Dave Trabert June 25, 2009

    There are legitimate issues here, such as space and the concern about those with press credentials also functioning as lobbyists, but solutions can be found. The real question seems to be the extent to which the Legislature wants to control press coverage.

  3. LonnythePlumber June 25, 2009

    I thought Hawvers was a printed newsletter and if you subscribed to the print then you could get the online version also. I have only seen it in print. And wasn’t it the Kansas City Star that went to online publication only, and no printed edition?
    Bob are you going to be at the Attorney General’s Open Record/Meetings seminar in Wichita in the morning?

  4. James June 25, 2009

    Excellent points Bob. Please keep up the good work and keep pressure up on Senate leaders. The real bullet here is Hawver getting credentials and KS Liberty not. If readers making comments is the distinguishing factor, then the Topeka Capital Journal, KC Star, Lawrence Journal-World, Salina Journal, Hutch News, Emporia Gazette and Wichita Eagle should all be revoked as well. And that’s just a few that allow comments on blogs and “hard” articles as well.

    The fact is sites like KS Liberty, KS Meadowlark, and yours are getting the truth out, and Senate leadership isn’t going to do anything that would help those information outlets along.

  5. LonnythePlumber June 26, 2009

    Correction. It is the Kansas City Kansan that went all online this past January. The paper for Kansas City, Kansas. The KC Star is the paper for the Missouri side.

  6. kathy ostrowski June 27, 2009

    Even more important for citizen involvement than media floor access is transparency in the way the legislature operates. Too many votes are oral, and unrecorded, particularly in the Senate. We would have been better served by an electronic remodeling of the Senate chamber, instead of just slavishly recreating antique designer details. Instead, citizens only have access to “listen live” recordings, instead of retrievable, recorded floor debate. Too often these do not transmit properly, and during critical times of the session, when both chambers are on the floor simultaneously, citizen must choose one and lose the other.
    Also, committee rooms are not wired (except Jim Morrison’s) and conferees’ testimonies and ensuing discussion aren’t consistently recorded in written fashion, nor approved and available in a timely manner.
    (And a word on the atrocious lack of visitor seating in the Senate balcony: 90-degree-angled hard benches with a miserably limited view of the Senators, while granting a clear vista of Senate president, staffers, media, and opposing balcony.) And –unlike the House–no large score board is inside the Senate chamber, or television screen outside the chamber, to assist monitoring.
    People are not engaged in politics because it is not easy for them to hear all that is being said or done “under the Dome”, although we live in an age where common access to technology makes this really indefensible. Only moneyed interests, and those wanting tax money, can afford salaried lobbyists to keep track of things.

  7. […] get the same level of access that traditional media has in the Kansas statehouse. My post Kansas alternative media shut out of legislative access gives […]

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