GUEST COLUMN: The General Assembly’s obsolete press rules are limiting public access to information

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 Just under sixteen months ago in an essay entitled “Darkness descends on the General Assembly,” I explored and lamented the shroud of secrecy that had overtaken the state legislature in recent years.

Things haven’t gotten much better in 2019 and this situation hasn’t been helped – either symbolically or practically – by the decision of state Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble (the person that Senate and House leaders employ to run the building) to relocate the press room that serves as an office for the legislature’s small cadre of journalists.

For decades, the press room had been located in the middle of the Legislative Building’s first floor, right across a narrow hallway from the building’s press conference room. Recently, Coble relegated reporters to a new space in a back corner of the Legislative Building basement and turned their old digs into a locked, “members only” lounge for lawmakers.

Of course, even when they have easy access to all of the places they need to be, Legislative Building reporters have another significant challenge: the group has been melting away before our eyes in recent years thanks to the rapid decline of traditional news outlets.

This latter fact serves to highlight another problem for transparency that has arisen in recent years: the General Assembly’s cramped definition of “press.”

In order for a reporter to occupy one of the seats reserved for the “press” in various Legislative Building venues, the person in question must: 1) be a member of the Capital Press Corps (a self-governing organization run by the small group of journalists based in the Legislative Building basement), or 2) receive a temporary press credential from a media outlet deemed acceptable by the CPC. Click here to read the CPC rules.

For journalism enterprises like Policy Watch (a project of the North Carolina Justice Center) and the Carolina Journal (a project of the conservative John Locke Foundation), these rules are hugely problematic. For even though both projects are award-winning members of the North Carolina Press Associationand regularly occupy press seats in other locations (e.g. gubernatorial press conferences), the CPC denies membership to PW and CJ reporters because, its leaders say, they are employees of “an organization that’s primary focus is the promotion of public policy.”

This bar regularly leads to absurd situations. In late 2016, Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian was arrested because he was not allowed to sit in the press section of the House floor and attempted to stay in the House gallery to do his job after the House Speaker ordered it cleared of demonstrators. On other occasions, PW reporters have been ordered to exit virtually empty press sections of large legislative committee rooms. Just last week, while covering an event in the press conference room, I was told by a sergeant-at-arms staffer that I could not sit in the empty row of seats set aside for the media (see the picture at right) or stand behind them in the empty space that had been set aside for TV cameras (no media cameras were there). A few minutes into the press conference, a single CPC member did arrive to occupy one seat.

While Policy Watch attempted to work out a compromise this year whereby our reporters would be credentialed by other traditional news outlets that carry our content – something that happens on a regular basis – this workaround has proved burdensome and unwieldy because of the CPC’s demand that credentials only be issued on a daily basis for a particular story. Needless to say, our reporters have been less than enthusiastic about having both to obtain a letter from a newspaper and seek out CPC members (i.e. competitors) to disclose their reporting plans anytime they want to cover an event or debate at the General Assembly.

Previous PW requests for (nonvoting) membership in the CPC have been denied. This, despite the fact that membership has been granted to reporters who work for outlets controlled by entertainment conglomerates, outlets that endorse candidates (something PW cannot do under federal nonprofit law) and outlets that employ lobbyists to work the General Assembly to boost their own profits (something newspapers do virtually every legislative session).

CPC members reply that if PW and CJ are admitted, there will be nothing to prevent those who write for any number of special interest outlets – be they labor unions or gun rights groups – from sitting in the press section.

But, of course, there’s an obvious distinction to be made between groups that are both members of the N.C. Press Association and employ journalists to cover a wide range of issues for a general audience (like PW and CJ) and, say, an insurance industry magazine or trade journal that caters to members of an association. (As an aside, it’s hard to understand how having more eyes and ears on Jones Street – whatever their affiliation – would harm the public.)

The bottom line: The issue of who is a journalist and what is a legitimate journalism outlet in the modern, rapidly evolving media environment are, admittedly, complex questions. At some point soon, though, common sense needs to be applied lest there be no one left to report on our government at all.