116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
My first reaction upon hearing that Statehouse reporters would be barred from working on the floor of the Iowa Senate, where journalists have had a front-row seat to legislative proceedings for more than a century, was disgust and sadness.
Sadness for my colleagues who will be severely hampered in doing their jobs after being relegated to a perch high above the chamber in the second-floor gallery, far from lawmakers. No doubt they’ll all doggedly work to provide important coverage despite the new, misguided rules and disdain for the value of media coverage displayed by Republicans who run the joint.
I know it’s going to more difficult because I covered 10 legislative sessions, mostly from a seat on the Senate’s west press bench.
Being on the floor gives reporters a far better sense of what’s actually happening. Not all of the discussions and actions impacting legislation and Iowans are spoken into microphones. For example, reporters on the floor are close enough to hear disputes over parliamentary rulings in “the well” just in front of the Senate president’s rostrum.
Working from the floor makes it easier for reporters to ask lawmakers questions, clarifying journalists’ understanding of bills, amendments and procedural maneuvers. Accuracy depends on this sort of interaction. Working on the floor also gives legislators an opportunity to seek out reporters and provide information.
News conferences and other occasions to question Senate leaders have become scarce during the years of full GOP control. So floor access is even more crucial.
Football play-by-play announcers may work from a lofty press box. But they also rely on sideline reporters who can cast light on what’s actually happening on the field. Senate Republicans are basically denying journalists a clear view of the action.
Why? There are clues.
“It has become increasingly evident that we live in a world in which many, including our media, wish to confuse, misguide and deceive us, calling good evil and evil good,” Senate President Jake Chapman said in his opening day speech.
Senate Republicans contend, with the proliferation of online news outfits, some with a partisan slant, they can’t figure out how to craft a definition of “media” that complies with the First Amendment. So now, no one can work on the press bench. As excuses go, few have been thinner or lamer.
I couldn’t put it any better than what Iowa Capital Dispatch Editor Kathie Obradovich wrote in her recent column. “If Senate Republicans can’t manage to write a definition of media that passes constitutional muster, how can Iowans trust them to write complex legislation that overhauls the income tax, regulates controversial issues like gun rights and abortion, defines criminal behavior or addresses technical legal, medical and environmental issues?”
Republicans also have resisted granting credentials to Laura Belin, who runs the left-leaning political news site Bleeding Heartland. Belin is clearly a bona fide journalist under almost any definition. But Republicans simply don’t like what she writes. And now they’ve taken their crusade to shut her out to ridiculous levels. All the way up to the Senate gallery.
Reporters were moved off the floor in 2021, apparently as a COVID-19 precaution. This from the same Republican leaders who didn’t require the use of masks, and shrugged off all calls for precautions. Now they’re using the pandemic as a pretext to make the change permanent.
“I am told this is being done out of precaution, same as last session, to limit the amount of people on the Senate floor because of the China Virus that is now peaking,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, in an email to one of my readers.
Gazette Des Moines Bureau chief Rod Boshart retired Dec. 31, 2021. He anchored the west Senate press bench for decades. I sat next to him during my time at the Capitol.
Boshart is one of the most observant journalists I’ve ever known. I recall two stories he broke because he was on the Senate floor.
During the President Bill Clinton impeachment saga, Boshart noticed that a group of Senate pages was having a traditional group photo taken in the well. He also noticed Clinton’s photo behind the president’s chair was taken down. Some of the pages asked that it be removed because of the president’s conduct.
His story was on the wire and being broadcast around the nation within the hour.
In another instance, a page approached us with a chance to join a Statehouse NCAA basketball bracket pool for $5. Boshart noticed that dozens of people had signed up. Trouble is, the total pot clearly ran afoul of Iowa’s law at that time limiting winnings from such a pool. He also noticed that anti-gambling lobbyists had thrown in $5 as well. Again, the resulting story got plenty of attention.
Boshart recently tweeted about the denial of Senate floor access:
“For more than 30 years I had the privilege of sitting in the first chair on the west press bench in the Iowa Senate chambers at the Capitol to witness and document the workings of democracy. I never realized what a privilege that was or how fragile that democracy was until now,” Boshart wrote.
Sure, this doesn’t affect me directly. I don’t work at the Capitol anymore. But like a lot of Iowans, I depend on Statehouse reporters to be my eyes and ears. I depend on their coverage.
This is yet another dubious power play by GOP leaders who think they can do whatever they want, undermine any institution or tradition, and fear no retribution. They’re probably right, and that’s sad.
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