In journalism, it’s been termed the Battle between the Old and the New.
And when news reporters who remain among the dwindling ranks of the still-employed descend this week on the hallowed halls of Colorado’s state Capitol to cover the annual convening of the Legislature, many will be surprised to learn that — thanks to the actions of a handful of other reporters — only “real” journalists can now wear purple.
Specifically, this year a handful of traditionally-minded Capitol-based reporters have adopted an additional role of gatekeeper. They have formed a group designed to recommend to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate President which reporters and news organizations that cover the Capitol are legitimate — and which are not.
The plan, ostensibly, is designed to keep political activists posing as journalists at bay. But the reality of such restrictions has drawn criticism and concerns that their efforts may actually hinder the ability for citizens to understand the inner working of their government.
Colorado is one of a handful of states that still allows reporters access to the chambers of the Senate and the House of Representatives. And many reporters maintain that, in order to do their jobs effectively, they need to have access when the Legislature is in session, to properly observe proceedings and make contact with lawmakers to follow up on their comments or for clarification. And some reporters are on the floor every day, while other news organizations send reporters to the Capitol only sporadically.
The news organizations with office and desk space at the Capitol – where space is at a premium — have been long-established daily newspapers, like the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post, the Pueblo Chieftain and the Colorado Springs Gazette, and the Associated Press wire service.
Joe Hanel, the Durango Herald‘s Denver-based reporter, said that he, along with a handful of others, realized a possibility that political activists posing as journalists may seek access to the House and Senate floors. Shortly before Christmas several of the journalists met with House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and newly elected Senate President Peter Groff, Hanel said.
From that meeting emerged the idea for a Colorado Capitol Press Association, whose task it was to come up with a new credentialing system for reporters and make recommendations to the elected leaders about who should be allowed access — essentially determining who’s a journalist and who’s not. Those journalists who are ultimately recommended — and approved by government leaders — will be issued a purple badge to wear at the Capitol.
The CCPA’s “Standing Committee” is comprised of a self-selected group of five reporters who work regularly at the Capitol — and have a distinct self-interest in continuing their own access on the floors of the Senate and House. They include Hanel, Charles Ashby from the Pueblo Chieftain, April Washington of the Rocky Mountain News, TV reporter Adam Schrager from 9News in Denver and Bente Birkeland, who represents a coalition of pubic radio stations.
Political activists posing as reporters to gain access to the floor of the House or Senate has historically been exceedingly rare, noted Ed Otte, executive director of the Colorado Press Association, the state’s longtime journalism trade organization.
The CPA was not involved in devising the new Capitol policy — and Otte noted that journalists traditionally favor expanding, rather than restricting, coverage of state Capitol proceedings.
Otte, as did Speaker Romanoff, recalled that several years ago one Colorado lawmaker proposed that reporters wear some sort of identification. The response was a mutinous Capitol press corps who donned badges displaying photos of Daffy Duck and Mickey Mouse. That effort was ultimately abandoned.
For the past couple of years, most members of the press corps who regularly cover House and Senate proceedings are recognized and waived into the chambers by the sergeants-at-arms who stand guard at the doors. Other reporters, who only occasionally go physically to the Capitol to cover official proceedings, simply have signed in and sometimes worn badges issued either by their news organization or by the Colorado Press Association.
Unlike the past unifying Daffy Duck-style press corps rebellion, the five-member CCPA has taken a far different tack this year: agreeing to serve as an advisory group to the House and Senate leaders.
However, this week Romanoff underscored, in exceedingly strong terms, that the formation of the CCPA in no way undermines his or Senate President Groff’s authority in governing their respective chambers – including deciding who is allowed on the floor and who is not.
Their hope with establishing the CCPA, he said, was merely to help guide them.
“I can tell you that since space on the floor is limited, I need to come up with some kind of criteria,” Romanoff said. “And I could say, ‘First come, first served,’ but I think we can do better than that. I’m open to your suggestions, and to anyone else’s.
“I have a goal of preserving access to the media.”
“We’re free to reject [the CCPA’s] recommendations, and also free to accept them… To be clear, the association does not have, and could not have, the power to make the decisions,” Romanoff said.
But the CCPA’s application process has riled at least one veteran journalist. On Jan. 2, Bob Moore, the executive editor of the Gannett-owned Fort Collins Coloradoan issued a letter to Groff and Romanoff describing the new policy as “misguided and unfair.”
“My key concern is the attempt to define a journalist in a changing media world, and some resulting inherent unfairness in the credential process,” Moore wrote to the lawmakers. “The most obvious example is a prohibition of credentials to nontraditional media if their organizations engage in lobbying or other attempts to influence the political process. There is no such prohibition for traditional media, which is fortunate, since all traditional media are involved in lobbying the Legislature through their trade organizations.
Moore asked Romanoff and Groff to re-examine the new policy and said he has not yet heard back from either of them.
In a subsequent e-mail correspondence with ColoradoConfidential.com, Moore elaborated on his unease:
“My larger philosophical concern is that I’m not comfortable with a group of journalists tasked with identifying who is and who isn’t a journalist,” Moore wrote. “It’s a potentially dangerous situation, because self-interest is bound to come into play, no matter how well-intentioned the effort.
“This also strikes me as a solution in search of a problem,” Moore continued. “Media coverage of the Legislature, at least by traditional media, has declined in recent years, so I’m not sure why we have a crisis of floor access. In that same vein, I’m not sure why we want to put obstacles in the way of anyone in media, traditional or nontraditional, who is interested in informing the citizenry of what is being done in their name.”
And Moore exemplified what he perceives as inherent dangers of such a regulatory scheme.
“The [new] regulations are discriminatory,” he wrote. “Journalists are broken down into three categories — those working for ‘legal’ newspapers, those working for TV and radio stations, and everyone else. Those who fall into the third category can’t work for an institution that is deemed to be engaged in lobbying or trying to influence elections. That prohibition doesn’t apply to those working in the first two categories. Good thing, too, or Jason Kosena from my staff wouldn’t qualify for credentials.
“The Coloradoan, primarily through trade organizations but sometimes on our own, engages in lobbying efforts,” Moore noted. “I personally was heavily involved last year in the ultimately successful effort to pass a bill lowering costs of obtaining copies of public records. Some of the work I did was classic ‘lobbying.’
“Additionally, through its editorial pages, the Coloradoan attempts to influence elections. That behavior is viewed as appropriate for us, but not for organizations that fall into the ‘all other’ category? That seems patently unfair.”
Moore also cites his literal reading of the CCPA’s rules, which in his mind would disqualify an editorial writer or newspaper columnist from obtaining credentials.
“They’re not the targets of this particular part of the regulation — partisan political activists are the target — but granting credentials to a Denver Post columnist but not a writer for a ‘partisan’ Website will require selective enforcement of the rules,” Moore noted.
Similarly, Otte, the executive director of the Colorado Press Association, likened the current controversy to a rapid rise in technology — the old media versus new media, if you will — and the state government’s attempts to respond.
Hanel rejects that notion. “The old media,” he said, “is not ganging up on the new media.”
As for the formation of the CCPA and its new policy, Otte said he contacted Ashby to discuss the matter. And Otte has spoken to Moore, the Coloradoan’s executive editor, and plans to talk to other editors as well.
“I agree with Bob,” Otte said. “I think it’s a solution in search of a problem.”
As of this Tuesday, only two applying organizations — both online news groups — will not receive a recommendation for credentials from the CCPA: ColoradoConfidential.com and State Bill Colorado. Neither news group has yet received a final decision on whether they’ll be granted floor credentials from Groff or Romanoff’s offices.
But it’s likely that many news organizations in Colorado — and beyond — are not yet aware of the new credentialing rules. Hanel said that, in addition to a “press credential” link posted on the Colorado General Assembly’s Web site, the CCPA informed the Colorado Press Association, broadcast outlets and some news organizations of the new rules.
Hanel said in addition to Moore from the Coloradoan, he’s received other complaints from “a couple of editors” from other organizations — though he declined to identify them. Among those who have applied for credentials so far are the Denver Daily News and the Colorado Springs Gazette, he said.
In interviews, Hanel also described his “extreme discomfort” about his new role.
“I also am a journalist and value the First Amendment greatly — it’s our creed, our confessional, and it’s an extremely uncomfortable position for me to be in,” he said. “I’m not a door guard.”
Ashby, another of the five-member CCPA, said that he has printed up paper Xeroxed temporary press badges to hand out to reporters who show up to cover the opening days of the legislature — including speeches by the governor, and Republican and Democratic leaders — who have not yet completed the new process.
The permanent badges will be purple and cost $8, Hanel said.
For more on this story:
Click here to read about the CCPA’s decision recommending rejection of ColoradoConfidential.com and another online news organization, State Bill Colorado.
Click here to review the Colorado Capitol Press Association rules, as specified on the Colorado General Assembly’s Web site.
And click here to review the form that, when completed, is submitted to the Speaker of the House and the Senate President detailing their recommendation or non-recommendation for applying organizations by the CCPA.
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org