This is Freedom of Information Day and it's also Sunshine Week, the week where journalists advocate -- more forcefully than usual -- greater access to government data and the secrets that government tries to keep.
And yet, journalists still argue that some of them should have more access than others.
The question of who should be allowed on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives came up today during a discussion on MPR's Midday broadcast, featuring Rich Neumeister, a citizen lobbyist and winner of the 2009 John Finnegan Award (MPR story about him here), and Mark Anfinson, the longtime attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
The controversy, simmering for years, has percolated at the Capitol this session as online-only media (which on a national scale was joined today by the Seattle Post Intelligencer) has asked for, and been denied, the same access to the House floor as mainstream media.
Neumeister advocated for the online journalists today. "There was a bill introduced dealing with criminal intelligence gathering. Law enforcement could gather intelligence on people who may or may not be a terrorist," he said. "I called a number of these bloggers, one of them decided to print the the story. Then Politics in Minnesota picked it up.I approached other people (mainstream media) and it was, 'Well, we're doing this,' and they don't have as many reporters anymore."
"The bigger change and the thing that's driven the Capitol and hearings is not fewer reporters, it's many, many more journalists driven by the online community," Anfinson said. "This same issue popped up during the Republican National Convention when the local law enforcement had a tough time distinguishing between mainline and people who called themselves journalists."
Anfinson says the controversy at the Capitol arose because "practical applications went smack against the doorway and the echo is still reverberating. You can't have everybody who claims to be a journalist going on the House floor. You just can't. We need to come up with solutions, but we can't rush them."
"In the good old days," he said, "the number of credentialed reporters were fairly limited. That allowed some familiarity to develop. They were allowed. What if 500 people want access? I'm not saying they should be excluded, but you can't approach this in a simplistic way."
Neumeister's solution, however, was to start by granting access to the online organizations that everyone agrees should get access, citing Politics in Minnesota (which rarely has had a problem with access because it was started by prominent lobbyists) and Minnpost.
He also said bloggers and online journalists should get the same access at committee hearings that members of the public do, let alone other journalists.
"I think bloggers should be able to go to committee hearings without credentials and do what they need to do to get the message out," he said. "Citizens do this all the time."
"Whether you call them citizens, journalists or citizen-journalists, they're coming to the courtrooms, the committee rooms and the statehouse to report on the government," Jane Kirtley, the University of Minnesota professor of media ethics, wrote in the Pioneer Press on Sunday. They have every right to be there, because you have every right to be there. It's your government at work. It's your business."
And because it is, Neumeister, as MPR's Tim Nelson pointed out, is "one of the state's foremost authorities on what Minnesotans know about the government and what the government knows about them."
What's bad about that?
Recommended reading: The State of the News Media 2009 (just out today.)
Tim Nelson's story about Neumeister doesn't quite get the name of the organization bestowing the Finnegan Award right. It's the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, rather than the Minnesota Council on Government Information.
Those who want to learn more about the group can follow the link above.
One big First Amendment objection I have to this proposal: Who is to say that MinnPost and Politics in Minnesota are two blogs who should gain access because "everyone agrees" they should!
Who is "everybody"? Why didn't I get to vote? What if my blog wants to write from the floor? The freedom of the press applies to *all* equally.
My suggestion is merely that the credentialing process START with the online institutions that everyone agrees on, these are institutions whose people are working at the Capitol now.
There's no reason to not start there because the powers want to answer the big questions. The big question is already answered.
There's no way that everyone who writes a blog can get floor access. It's an impossibility; so everyone should own up and acknowledge that there's no system that won't result in saying "no" to someone. And you don't write FROM the floor; it's not workspace.
The ability to take a picture or video in a committee is another matter entirely. There's no reason everyone shouldn't be allowed to do what they need to do to get their material out.