Home / 2012 Session Wrap / Hard-pressed: Reporters find increasing number of roadblocks to legislative access during 50th

Hard-pressed: Reporters find increasing number of roadblocks to legislative access during 50th

Russell Pearce (AP Photo)

During the two sessions of the 50th Legislature, members of the press increasingly had to think twice about where they were and were not allowed to go.

During the 2011 session, then-Senate President Russell Pearce put restrictions in place for reporters. Under the new rules, members of the media could only approach a member on the Senate floor when invited. Before, they used to be able to walk over to a lawmaker to ask a question so long as the Senate wasn’t gaveled in session. In explaining the changes, Pearce said at the time he had received complaints from lawmakers who felt as though they were “being ambushed” by the press.

In the 2012 session, restrictions were put in place to limit access for reporters in the House. Reporters who wanted access to the House floor were required to wear state-issued press badges. And reporters could no longer come and go as they pleased throughout the House building — they had to have an appointment before they could get to lawmakers’ offices on the first or third floors.

During the session, the Democrats tried to draw attention to the restrictions as an issue of transparency, calling the new enforcement “arbitrary” and an encroachment on the press’s First Amendment rights.

The tempest started in February when

12 News KPNX reporter Melissa Blasius and a photographer were kicked off the floor of the House because they didn’t have state-issued press badges, despite the fact that Blasius is well-known by House staff and lawmakers and regularly covers the Legislature.

The rules are actually not new, but the enforcement was. House rules state that only “duly accredited” members of the press holding “nontransferable cards issued by the (House) speaker” may be allowed in the press gallery on the floor.

In practice, however, only members of the press corps who are at the Capitol nearly every day had the cards, and reporters were allowed access to the floor so long as they had some form of a press badge.

Both House GOP spokesman Rey Torres and House Speaker Andy Tobin said the restrictions were a matter of security. Tobin said there was a situation where a reporter was “wandering the halls” of the House without any identification, which made security nervous that members of the press may be able to overhear conversations that were meant to be private.

“We have legislative counsel who are meeting with our members and giving them advice,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times in February as an example of things he wouldn’t want the roaming press to overhear.

However, some observers suggested that there may be more to the restrictions.

“(Tobin) is very protective of his caucus — he has this ‘papa bear’ mentality toward his members,” said former GOP lawmaker Mike Gardner.

To Tobin and some other politicians, those in office may need protecting from the media, Gardner said, especially in “this era of gotcha journalism.”

“They do a half-baked job of investigating stories,” Gardner said of the news media. “They’re not interested in the truth, they’re interested in sensationalism. And you mix that with Tobin’s protective attitude towards his members, I can see why he draws these lines in the sand.”

One example Gardner pointed out was the coverage of comments made by Republican Rep. Cecil Ash of Mesa, who made a quip on the House floor earlier this session that elicited a media firestorm. During a debate concerning whether Arizona should have a day celebrating Latino Americans at the Legislature, Ash made a tongue-in-cheek comment that he would support the proposal, but that he wanted assurance that “when we do become in the minority you’ll have a day for us.”

Although it was intended as a lighthearted comment to break the tension created by other lawmakers’ inflammatory remarks, CBS5 KPHO television and liberal-leaning media outlets like the Daily Kos repeated his comments as a sincere suggestion, prompting outrage from the left until even Democrats at the Capitol came to Ash’s defense.

Tobin has been an outspoken critic of the media, often charging that the press is more critical of the Republican-led Legislature than it would be of a Democrat-led one, pointing to the supposedly favorable coverage of the Independent Redistricting Commission as an example.

Gardner suggested that despite Democrats’ attempts to drum up some outrage, it may actually get Tobin support from voters.

But other observers argue that some voters may think that Tobin overstepped his bounds.

For the issue to actually gain traction, however, First Amendment advocate Dan Barr said the critics would have to make sure to spin it the right way.

“I always think that members of the public are not interested one way or another about the inside baseball of how the press does their job,” Barr said. “But if they were to see that their elected officials were making it more difficult to get that information, it could make them angry.”

Other railbirds say that the public doesn’t necessarily care how easy it is for the press to get its stories. Consultant and former reporter Chip Scutari suggested that with so many more pressing issues being discussed on the campaign trail that transparency probably isn’t on anyone’s minds.

However, he said the changes are more significant than some people realize.

“You can view this as a small, subtle, incremental, dismantling of the Fourth Estate at the state Capitol,” he said. “Call me old fashioned, but I thought the state House was the people’s house. I always thought there was nothing to hide.”

Rather than worrying about whether it would reflect badly on them on the campaign trail, Scutari and Barr say that Tobin and other politicians who try to shun the media should worry about their own ability to get their message out.

Lawmakers who are available and forthcoming with the media tend to get the benefit of the doubt, they said. But when politicians act as though they have something to hide, some reporters become suspicious.

“I’d be saying, what do you have to hide?” said Scutari.

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