First, some history.
Untangled: Back in 2010, when the DFL last controlled the Legislature, the media credentialling system was a shambles. The Senate Rules specifically listed the media outlets that had permanent credentials – the major metro newspapers, the state’s various TV and major radio stations, MPR, the Legal Ledger and a few others. You could count them on your fingers and toes, if I recall correctly (and I may well not). However, any Senator could vouch for any “reporter” they wanted, and give them essentially a “day pass” to get into the gallery, the press room, and onto the floor (at a table reserved for the media between gavels, and out on the floor proper outside the session).
It was never much of an issue until the mid-2000s, with the growth of an alternative media. Suddenly, new media – blogs, talk radio, and video and audio streams – began demanding a place covering the Legislature. Being part-timers and hobbyists, most of us only needed credentials on a situational basis – but others, flush with activist budgets, had the time and manpower to make it a full-time “job”.
In 2010, the DFL made a hash of things; they credentialed “The Uptake”, a stridently progressive video-blog, but denied a day pass to Saint Cloud conservative talk host Dan Ochsner.
After the legislature flipped in 2010, the 2011 session began with tat following tit, with the GOP initially getting payback and ejecting the Uptake from the Senate.
Michael Brodkorb, brand-new in his job as Senate GOP Comms czar, took matters into his own hands. While Michael’s a polarizing figure even inside conservative circles these days (and someone I still consider a friend), he undertook a really superlative project; give the Minnesota Senate the best, most open, transparent media credentialling process in the United States. Period.
With that in mind, he enlisted left-leaning journo David Brauer, a few capitol comms staffers (including Senate DFL comms guy Beau Berendson and, briefly, then-House-DFL communications person Carrie Lucking, in her last gig before becoming Alita Messinger’s propaganda minister) and yours truly to craft a new Senate media credentialling rule.
I chronicled the process leading to the new news credentialing policy, from conception to passage into the Senate’s permanent rules, in a series of blog posts.
One of the rules was as follows (and it reads this way in the Senate’s permanent rules today):
Organizations owned or controlled by registered lobbyists, political parties or other party organizations (defined as organizations registered with the Campaign Finance Board or the Federal Election Commission) shall not be granted credentials.
It seemed pretty clear at the time. In fact, it still does.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t controversy.
The Point Being: the issuance of press credentials, and the (limited) access they give you to Senators on the floor, is non-partisan. Utterly, utterly non-partisan.
So when the Strib’s Baird Helgeson notes in a story about a credentialing tempest in a Senate teapot that…:
Republicans have questioned Senate press credentials for the left-leaning Uptake, while Democrats are critical of press credentials for conservative blogger Mitch Berg.
…that everyone – the Republicans questioning Uptake, the “Democrats” who bagged on me  , and I suspect Helgeson himself – misses the point.
Anyone can get credentials – provided they aren’t “owned or controlled by registered lobbyists, political parties or other party organizations”.
Credentials are issued by the non-partisan Sergeant At Arms – the eternal Sven Lindquist, who’s been there close to thirty years, through every possible combination of political power.
Seems simple, huh?
Muddied: Shawn Towle is a Saint Paul would-be pundit. For years, he ran the website/protoblog Checks and Balances.
More recently, he’s “famous” for reportedly having tweeted a link to an anonymous photo of a former Minnesota legisator – a female conservative, naturally – in her underwear, apparently while doing a little galavanting, as they used to say. Did Towle publish the photo? Let’s assume it fell out of the sky and hit him on the head, for all I care. Either way, the episode was one of the more disturbing bits of “gotcha” “journalism” I’ve seen, part of a wave of (and I say this with all due respect to Towle as a journalist) prurient panty-sniffing from Twin Cites left-leaning alt-media, thinly disguised as diligent reporting (about the private and semi-private lives of female conservatives and, it seems, nothing more).
But that was last year, We have a new controversy.
Helgeson notes that Towle has been paid nearly $40,000 in the past few years by the DFL, including money just before the current session:
DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk’s “failure to disclose political payments he made to a member of the credentialed press is dishonest and damages the integrity of the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said Monday. “How can the public trust what’s going on at the Capitol if the reporters are being paid by the politicians?”
There are really two points here:
- Why does the DFL feel the need to pay Towle – who, according to sources in the Capitol, apparently shows up at GOP Senators’ press conferences acting like a Reagan-era Sam Donaldson? They don’t have enough mainstream media to do the job for free?
- I’m not sure that this story affects the public trust in the Senate – there are bigger reasons, like a $90 million office building and three years worth of lies about property taxes to do that. But one might certainly wonder what Shawn Towle’s angle is.
Hann is demanding that Bakk have Towle’s press credentials revoked. The press passes allow journalists to get on the Senate floor during debates, but they do not grant any special access to members.
It’s a little more complicated than that – it allows access to the press gallery, to press office handouts and info and – when space is available – to a small table on the floor (limit: 6) during the debates, with precedence given to the permanent press corps members that rent space in the basement.
But it’s not much more complicated than that.
An Aside: Helgeson’s piece has this curious interjection:
Despite Hann’s insistence, Bakk had no role in getting Towle his press credentials.
Helgeson is talking for Bakk? I mean – according to whom did Bakk had no relationship with Towle’s credentials?
Of course, it’s irrelevant, or should be. You don’t need connections to get press credentials anymore. That was one of the goals of the rules we passed in 2011!
And while Bakk needn’t have had any more role in Towle getting his credentials than in me getting mine, Bakk most certainly knew and had plenty to do with the fact that…:
- The Senate paid Towle
- The arrangement broke the Senate rules.
Dwelling in the Irrelevant: Helgeson:
Towle said he actually got his Senate credentials when the Republicans controlled the body and Hann was an assistant leader.
Around that time, Towle was also on the payroll of the Republican Party of Minnesota’s payroll. The state GOP paid Towle a combined $15,000 in 2010 and 2011, records show.
Towle, in many forums (including in a phone conversation with me, over the winter when this story first came out) keeps repeating that he’s been paid by both sides. The DFL is leaning on the same point:
DFL Senate Caucus Communications Director Amos Briggs points out that Towle has “been credentialed under DFL and GOP majorities, although you will notice that the credentialing authority named in the rule is nonpartisan.”
All of it is true – and it’s irrelevant.
When Towle was first credentialed, up through the beginning of the 2011 session, there were no formal rules against paid lobbyists or affiliates of lobbying organizations or parties being credentialed. That restriction began in 2011, well into the session.
The partisanship – or even the bipartisanship – of Towle’s contract employment isn’t the issue. It’s the fact that under the post-2011 Senate rules, he’s getting paid by any political organization. Period.
And some observers get this. The City Pages’ Aaron Rupar spoke with the Senate’s sergeant at arms, Sven Lindquist – the non-partisan staffer whose office is in charge of issuing press credentials. Lindquist notes…:
“In the case of Towle, if he is working for one or both political parties — and I would have no knowledge of that — the rule does state that he should be responsible [and let us know about] any change in his reporting status,” Lindquist said. “What I’m hearing now about this, it will have to be looked at further… we’ve never had to go down this path before.”
Lindquist said the one significant thing a Capitol credential allows reporters to do is to “have access to the Senate chamber, and with God as my witness I’ve never had [Towle] attempt to gain access to the Senate floor, and he’s been credentialed since perhaps ’99 or 2000.”
During most of which time, up to 2011, partisan affiliation wasn’t an issue – or, rather, it was as much an issue as the party controlling the Senate wanted to make it.
So To Sum Up: Does Shawn Towle get paid by the DFL? So it seems. Hey, a guy’s gotta earn a living.
But the problem is in Tom Bakk’s office. Bakk either thinks “rules” are for mere mortals, or he isn’t in control of what his staff is doing.
I’m dying to find out which.
 I’d like to challenge Mr. Helgeson to show me a single Republican since 2011 who’s given a rat’s ass about The Uptake. As to Democrats and yours truly? The only Democrat I’m aware of who’s whined about my credentials was Mark Gisleson, one of the DFL’s intellectual thought leaders and former blogger and current “where are they now”-fodder.