Politics

Republican leadership bars journalists from Iowa Senate floor

Republican leaders in the state Senate told journalists last week they will no longer be allowed to work on the chamber floor, a change that breaks with a more than 140-year tradition in the Iowa Capitol.

The new rule denies reporters access to the press benches near senators’ desks, a proximity current and former statehouse reporters told The Washington Post is crucial for the most accurate coverage.

The position allows reporters to see and hear everything clearly on the Senate floor and to get real-time answers and clarifications during debates. Commencing from the next session, reporters will be seated in a public upper-level gallery.

“When you take journalists and restrict their access and then you couple that with changes that have occurred in the past couple of years with procedures in Iowa, it makes it that much harder for the public to know what’s going on,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a government transparency watchdog.

In an email to statehouse reporters, Senate Republican spokesperson Caleb Hunter said the new rule arose from the “evolving nature and definition of ‘media.'”

“As non-traditional media outlets proliferate, it creates an increasingly difficult scenario for the Senate, as a governmental entity, to define the criteria of a media outlet,” the email reads. Hunter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Longtime statehouse reporters also called the justification specious and said there are no instances of non-traditional media causing disruptions.

“Having real-time access to lawmakers allows reporters to provide important clarification, context and additional information to the public,” said a statement from Iowa Capitol Press Association President Erin Murphy, Vice President Kathie Obradovich and Secretary Katarina Sostaric. Murphy is chief of The Gazette’s Des Moines Bureau.

“Lawmakers who have real-time access to reporters can pass along news that might not otherwise be reported, and also hold journalists accountable for errors or unclear information in stories,” the association said in the statement.

“Putting reporters in the upstairs galleries puts up new barriers to this process, and makes it more difficult for reporters to serve as the eyes and ears of the public.”

Statehouse coverage in Iowa had been disrupted since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, including a suspension of the spring 2020 session. Reporters had worked remotely, covering sessions via livestream or sitting in the upper-deck gallery to allow for social distancing on the chamber floor.

“Our experience covering the legislature from the galleries or remotely was not ideal: We didn’t get to know the freshmen (lawmakers), the rapport wasn’t there, and it was also difficult to get ahold of somebody if you need clarification,” Obradovich said. “It’s a poorer report that Iowans are getting when we don’t have that kind of access to lawmakers.”

William Petroski, who covered the Iowa state politics for nearly 40 years for the Des Moines Register before retiring in 2019, called the partisan decision “terrible for the public and terrible for readers.” Under the old rules that let reporters work from the chamber floor, reporters and lawmakers could quickly hold one another accountable, Petroski said.

“You could whisper someone a question; the No. 1 thing is just clarifying what is going on,” he said. “I would routinely get the attention of senators and say, ‘Hey, did you really do this? Does this bill really say that?’ You avoid a lot of mistakes, a lot of misunderstandings. It’s not a gotcha situation, but it’s better for the flow of information.”

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, stressed that Senate Democrats oppose the change and called the move hypocritical of Republican lawmakers.

“This is the party that spent all of last year railing about the First Amendment, protecting the freedom of speech, complaining about censorship,” Wahls said. Wahls said Senate Democrats will introduce a measure to change the rule but conceded it will be difficult.

ARTICLE: PAUL MURDOCH

MANAGING EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE

PHOTO CREDITS: WASHINGTON POST

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Paul, 37, is from Scotland in the UK, but currently lives and works in Bangkok. Paul has worked in different industries such as telemarketing, retail, hospitality, farming, insurance, and teaching, where he works now. He teaches at an all-girls High School in Bangkok. “It’s a lot of work, but I love my job.” Paul has an active interest in politics. His reason for writing for FBA is to offer people the facts and allow them to make up their own minds. Whilst he believes opinion columns have their place, it is also important that people can have accurate news with no bias.

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