It was April 28, 2003. I sat in the public gallery of the Minnesota State Senate, with a legal pad (this back when WiFi was kinda rare, much less Air Cards), scrawling madly on a legal pad, writing down the salient points of the debate going on below – the final debate on the (intial) passing of the Minnesota Personal Protection Act.
As I sat there, I knew three things as clearly as I could see Ellen Anderson theatrically donning a flak jacket:
- After 16 years of reading, study and activism, I knew more about this issue than most of the legislators on the floor, and any of the Capitol Press contingent – the Pat Kesslers and Laura McCollums and even Bill Salisburys – in the building.
- Had I been able to do what reporters were able to – go out on the floor after the close of debate, to interview the likes of Wes Skoglund and Ellen Anderson and Linda Berglin – I could have gone a long way toward presenting the public a much better, clearer, more complete accounting of the issue than they got from the mainstream media – which, to be fair, had come a long way, at least in terms of fairness, in the previous seven years.
- I would not get that chance – because I was not “the media”. I was just a mere peasant with a blog. And that just didn’t count, back then.
The media landscape has changed since 2003 – a lot. And Minnesota has led the way; bloggers, especially conservatives, have blazed the trail for the rest of the alternative media, knocking down walls that had stood for generations between “media” and democracy.
But not in the Minnesota state capitol.
As of the beginning of this session, there were two ways to get media credentials to the Minnesota State Senate:
- Be a reporter who worked for a short list of old-media outlets that were spelled out, word for word, in the Senate Rules; newspapers like the Strib and the PiPress; radio stations like WCCO and KSTP-AM, which hasn’t deployed a fulltime reporter to the Capitol since Cathy Wurzer worked there, back when I worked there, in 1986, and MPR. The big TV stations. And that was about it.
- Get vouched in with the Sergeant at Arms by a Senator or caucus staffer. These were usually “day passes” – short-term access to cover debates on hot-button issues.
It was both an anachronism – there is no mention of new media anywhere in the Senate rules – and a political football. Things came to a head in the 2009-2010 session, as the DFL caucus gave credentials to “The Uptake” – a very liberal group videoblog – but denied them to Saint Cloud conservative talk show host Dan Ochsner for being “partisan”.
The worm looked like it was turning this session; early on, the the Senate, now controlled by the MNGOP, denied credentials to all partisan news outlets, including the Uptake.
This was the road to madness – and, likely, litigation.
About this time a month ago, Senate GOP Caucus Communications director Michael Brodkorb – who is also the deputy chair of the MNGOP, a former blog star from his days running Minnesota Democrats Exposed, and incidentally my former “Northern Alliance Radio Network” colleague – asked MinnPost’s David Brauer and I to participate in a working group to revamp the rules. The goals were pretty simple; to…:
- Remove the partisanship from the process of determining who was a “journalist” and, more germanely, which “journalists” got credentials.
- Set up a fair, transparent, non-partisan process for apportioning these press credentials that both protected the interests of the legacy media (which have invested a lot of time and money in covering the Capitol over the years) with the imperative to legitimize and normalize access from the New Media.
- Make the process fast, simple and inexpensive for the non-partisan Senate staffers – the Sergeant at Arms’ office, the Senate Information Office and the Department of Administration – to run, and to add no extra burden or, in these cost-conscious times, expense to the process of administering press credentials.
Brauer was there in his rather unique capacity as both a vet of the mainstream media and a reporter for a site that is a little bit old and a little bit new-media. Me? Although I’ve worked in the MSM, I was there mostly to represent new and, I suspect, explicitly partisan media.
On both the left and the right.
Last week, the working group – Brodkorb, Brauer, Majority Caucus staffer Cullen Sheehan, minority-caucus staffer Beau Berentson, Sergeant-at-Arms Sven Lindquist and me – had its last meeting, and handed off our final recommendations. The recommendations went through the (non-partisan) lawyers, past us for one more round of making sure the lawyers were saying what we thought we were saying, and, today, to the Senate Rules Committee where, if all goes according to plan, Brauer and I will be testifying later this afternoon.
Here’s what would happen if Senators approve our recommendations:
The Sergeant-at-Arms — a nonpartisan staffer — would administer the credentialing process. Senators and partisan staff are expressly prohibited from intervening unless a journalist appeals his or her rejection. (More on that in a bit.)
Believe me, nobody — not the politicians, not the Capitol press corps — wants to define who is a journalist. However, because Senate space is limited, we decided on a fairly low bar: Applicants for a session-long credential must include three pieces in any format in the past year on “matters before the legislature.” That can include blog posts, video, etc.
The proposed rules state “any opinion in such pieces is immaterial” for credentialing. Does this mean more “ideological” journalists will get credentials? Almost certainly yes.
Count on it. I’m going to make a note to file next year.
But the Minnesota and U.S. Constitutions don’t limit freedom of the press to perceived non-ideologues.
However, publications “owned or controlled” by lobbyists, political parties and party organizations “shall not be granted credentials.” Lobbyists are currently barred from the Senate floor.
Credentialing, by the way, means…:
- You can get in line for one of the six seats on the Senate floor (stage-left from the podium), or ten seats reserved for media in the Gallery. Four of the floor seats are reserved for the “mainstream” media that rents space in the Capitol basement; the other two are “first-come, first served” seats for any other credentialed media. Four of the ten gallery seats are reserved for TV cameras from the lessees downstairs, if they show up.
- You can get material – agendas, roll-call votes and so on – from the Senate Information Office.
- After the final gavel, you can go on the floor to interview Senators – provided that you follow the decorum rules and the Senate’s unwritten dress code (. This is one thing that media people can do that the general public can not.
The most important part of these changes? There is no partisan input into who is a “journalist”, or who is granted credentials. The entire process is run by non-partisan staff, working to standards that leave the process open to pretty much anyone who wants to cover the Senate and who can make a fairly minimal commitment – writing three articles, not being a lobbyist or a party employee, following the decorum rules – to just about the lowest-possible barrier of entry to the term “journalist”. You’ll need to apply for your session pass thirty days before the session kicks off.
And unlike the current system, there is recourse if you’re denied. Brauer notes:
The Sergeant’s office has 14 days to review an application. That means if you want to cover opening day, get your application in by mid-December. It also means you can’t just drop in on the Capitol and declare yourself a journalist. (There’s a separate provision for day passes.)
If the Sergeant’s office rejects an application, the reasons must be spelled out in writing. One legal advisor strongly suggested having an appeals process. Therefore, the matter would go to the Senate Rules committee, which must issue a decision within 14 days.
This does bring politicians into the mix. The concept is that the Senate is the final arbiter of its rules (short of the courts, where applicants can always turn). Could Senators bum-rush an applicant they didn’t like? It’s possible. But unlike the current process, the debate would occur in public and be governed by their rules, which again, forbid consideration of opinion.
The upshot: bloggers, talk-radio hosts, videobloggers, and traditional news media will be considered journalists, for purposes of getting credentials, if the Rules Committee and then the Senate passes the proposal. Partisanship will not be either a disqualifier or a factor in apportioning access.
Having a good alarm clock, however, will.
I think it’s a fair trade.