Statehouse leaders affirmed a committee of journalists’ recommendation to reject press credentials for Watchdog.org, raising questions about both journalistic ethics and the First Amendment in the state’s vetting process, ethics experts say.
In 2008, the state Legislature sought to limit access to the House floor to “bona fide” journalists because some political organizations were using journalist status as a cover to get access to lawmakers, according to a history of the process.
Lawmakers asked statehouse correspondents to form a “standing committee” to recommend who is and isn’t a valid journalist. Then the House and Senate leadership selected the organizations that receive credentials, which are necessary to get on the House and Senate floor and obtain office space in the press room.
But journalism professor Edward Wasserman, dean of the journalism graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley, said Colorado’s process blurs ethical boundaries and subverts the First Amendment.
“To the degree that (journalists are) now beholden to the government for letting us come in and get a benefit, they might not write something the government doesn’t like,” he said. “It’s a very subtle lever of influence.”
Wasserman said the best method would be for lawmakers to tell the committee the number of spaces available in the press room or on the floor and let journalists decide who gets access, based on the content the news organizations produce.
The current way is “incompatible with the First Amendment,” Wasserman said.
University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor Robert E. Drechsel, who is director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, agreed the government has no business sanctifying journalists, but he wasn’t sure what approach the state could take to ferreting out political operatives.
“Who will you trust to make these decisions if not a journalist in an advisory role?” he asked, adding that legislators in other states, including Wisconsin, have had similar quandaries. “None of these are particularly desirable ways. Maybe someone has to come up with a criteria people can agree on and find a way to apply that criteria in a way people are comfortable with.”
Watchdog reporters have been credentialed in numerous other states and in Congress.
In Watchdog.org’s case, the standing committee initially wrote a letter saying it would not recommend credentials for organizations that lobby, influence elections or support campaigns. When Watchdog.org provided documentation in the form of tax returns from its parent organization, the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, that it does none of those things, the committee members changed tactics.
Denver Post reporter Joey Bunch and Rocky Mountain Public Radio reporter Bente Birkeland, two committee members, met with Watchdog.org and produced a packet of thinly sourced and dated articles saying the Franklin Center is funded by Charles and David Koch. They demanded to know the Center’s funding sources.
Wasserman said news organizations should be transparent about their funding and release the names of their donors or, in the case of for-profits, advertisers and subscribers.
“I don’t think the press should be in the business of concealing funding,” he said.
Franklin Center Vice President for Journalism Will Swaim said the organization declines to release funders because they have been promised anonymity. He cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the anonymity of funding lists for the NAACP when the state of Alabama demanded the information.
At the meeting with Watchdog.org, Bunch wanted to know how Watchdog.org’s stories break down in terms of holding Republicans and Democrats accountable. He then demanded Watchdog.org prove there was no Koch funding for the organization.
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“I haven’t heard anything that would change the vote,” he said, adding the committee was unanimous in rejecting Watchdog’s application for credentials. Bunch later confirmed that one of the committee members, who works for the Colorado Springs Gazette, which has a partnership with Watchdog and runs its stories, abstained from the vote.
After Watchdog.org appealed to legislative leaders, they sided with their journalist committee, but cited the previous allegations of lobbying and influencing elected officials.
Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said the media credentialing process doesn’t violate the First Amendment.
“You have access to the same information as any other media organization,” he said.
Senate Republicans spokesman Sean Paige said it may be time to revisit the credentialing process.
“The changing nature of journalism in general argues for reviewing those rules,” he said.
A spokesman for House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, said she did not have time to comment on the issue.
State records show the committee has significant input into who receives credentials and who is blocked from access. A list obtained through state open records laws shows about 150 people — including some who have since left journalism to work for politicians and state agencies — have received committee recommendations for credentials and were approved by leadership. About a dozen have been rejected, the list shows.
Supervisors for the journalists on the committee didn’t see a conflict, but were ambivalent about their reporters’ membership.
“As long as other journalists are not making rules to bar folks from covering the business of government, I am not super exercised about this,” Denver Post Editor Greg Moore wrote in an exchange with Watchdog.org on the topic. “Having said that, if the association was not involved in credentialing, it would not bother me.”
Denver Business Journal Editor Neil Westergaard noted his reporter quit the committee shortly after the vote on Watchdog’s request because he was too busy to spend time on it. But Westergaard wasn’t concerned about his reporter’s previous participation.
“Having an advisory committee to help the leadership determine who is legitimate press and who isn’t doesn’t cause me a lot of heartburn, either,” he wrote in an email exchange. “It beats having lawmakers decide for themselves. They’d probably kick everyone out and you could bring up the First Amendment until you were blue and it wouldn’t make a difference.”
Susan Greene, former Post reporter and columnist and editor of the Colorado Independent, said the government is making the final decision with the help of journalists who may have conflicts about helping competing reporters. She added the traditional journalists fail to understand the new media landscape of nonprofit reporting.
“What you should be judged on is your professionalism, fairness, balance and the body of your work,” said Greene, whose organization was initially denied credentials because of dated information about the Independent’s liberal funders. “I think Colorado needs to look at a more modern, effective and fairer way of doing things than having for-profit media serve as gatekeeper.”
Greene spent a year fighting for credentials, including letters from Denver’s top media attorney and coverage by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. She was able to successfully obtain credentials for her journalists but only after she revealed her donors.
Bunch pointed to the rules the committee drew up that require disclosure of funding sources, but a paper written by a former committee member and posted on the Legislature’s website also notes organizations that have owners with a known political bent can get credentialed if an organization “endeavors on a daily basis to engage in straight reporting.”
For example, Bloomberg News, whose founder Michael Bloomberg regularly gives money to political issues like gun control and tax increases, is credentialed for the Capitol. Last year, Bloomberg gave $150,000 to a failed attempt in Denver to raise taxes to fund college tuition.
Bunch, clearly upset that Watchdog asked his editor about the committee, said he saw no ethical problems in working on an advisory committee to the Legislature.
“As we’ve told you several times now, we cannot recommend approval (for) those who won’t disclose their sources of funding,” he wrote in an email. “I would recommend you consult with the GA’s legal services offices to consider the full story and legal rationale, instead of simply blaming your colleagues.”
But Wasserman said it is legitimate to question the advisory committee system and the Legislature’s role in credentialing media.
“It’s a position of subservience and supplication and not compatible to press independence,” he said.
(Editor’s note: Art Kane, Colorado Bureau Chief for Watchdog.org, previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Denver Post with Bunch, Greene and under Moore’s supervision.)