116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Our Golden Dome of Wisdom is about to reopen for business. But its Republican management seems determined to make it more and more difficult for Iowans to comprehend all the wisdom.
And that’s because we rely on journalists to keep track of what’s happening in the state Legislature and explain it to the rest of us who don’t spend our lives in the gilded confines and marble halls of the Statehouse. We need reporters to chronicle the complexities and absurdities of legislative actions. Most of us don’t have the bucks to hire a lobbyist or make the sort of big campaign donations that give us quick access to the key powerbrokers and grand pooh-bahs.
But this past week, we found out that Gov. Kim Reynolds, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver and House Speaker Pat Grassley declined an invitation to participate in a pre-session legislative forum that’s been held for the better part of 20 years. The forum, once sponsored by the Associated Press and now by the Iowa Capitol Press Association, gave reporters from across the state a chance to ask Statehouse leaders about the upcoming session. Just the bills affecting our lives and spending our money. No biggie.
Leaders often made some news. But now, no news is good news for the majority.
Reynolds has abandoned the traditions established by her predecessors for granting one-on-one interviews to Statehouse reporters ahead of the New Year and holding regular formal news conferences. Reynolds declined interview requests and hasn’t held a news conference in several months.
But the governor always has time to talk with friendly, conservative TV and radio outlets.
Once again, reporters won’t be allowed to work on press row on the Senate floor, where they are close to the action and can easily ask senators for explanations of amendments and often complicated procedural maneuvers. Instead, they’ll again be sequestered in a gallery high above the Senate floor.
The Senate allowed reporters floor access for much of the state’s history. But now, disdain for journalists and lame excuses for moving them to the rafters far outweigh history.
Add to that the continuing effort by lawmakers to deny access to legitimate journalists who write stuff they don’t like, the beating journalists took during the 2022 campaign from the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, the GOP’s penchant for skipping candidate forums and the blacklisting of KCRG TV9 from coverage of Republicans’ election night event and the picture is as crystal clear as the Republican-controlled Statehouse is increasingly opaque.
One saving grace is that Legislative subcommittees, committee and floor debate again will be available online. But that’s no substitute for thoughtful, informed reporting going on inside the Capitol. I know, I covered the joint for 10 years.
But just to be clear, this isn’t about me. I scribble columns knowing full well my views will deny me access to Republican politicians. I’m not going to pull punches to regain that access, so I live with the consequences. I wish they would engage even with people who strongly disagree with them. But no regrets.
I’m talking about the working journalists slogging through committees, subcommittees and floor debates, seeking daily to give Iowans a view of what their elected officials are up to. They’re the ones who now have a harder job. They’re the ones who must endure the pettiness of public officials who don’t believe informing the public is a priority or a laudable vocation.
It didn’t used to be this way. Gov. Terry Branstad upheld the tradition of regular weekly news conferences handed down by Gov. Robert Ray. Gov. Tom Vilsack was like an eager professor who relished the role of explaining his ideas to the typing, chattering rabble who didn’t understand.
A fair number of communications staff used to come from journalist backgrounds, understood the job journalists do and saw merit in providing information. Sure, there were confrontational moments and stories that rubbed politicians the wrong way, but there was some mutual respect in the fact that both sides were seeking to inform Iowans about the conduct of their government.
Now, more staffers come straight from the campaign battlefields and see journalists as an enemy to be thwarted rather than a part of the democratic process. They use social media to attack reporters’ work in bad faith. It’s a political winner for Republicans, who have spent the better part of 30 years discrediting reporters for electoral gain.
Of course, divided government helped. When the Legislature and governor’s office weren’t controlled by the same party, journalists played a key role in the battle of ideas. Now that Republicans control the whole shootin’ works, they’re pushing the press away and the scrutiny that comes with it. Politicians always had thin skins, but this crowd makes the 1/250,000th of an inch of gold leaf on the Capitol dome seem downright thick.
It’s true, Iowans have given Republicans great power. But do GOP leaders really believe their voters want to be left in the dark? I’ve heard from readers who cancel their subscription to the entire paper because they don’t like the opinion page, so who knows?
Republicans will tell you their good ideas gave them an electoral mandate. But if they’re such great ideas, why do they fear questions about their proposals? Surely they can explain and defend their plans.
Or maybe they’re not so sure their ideas are all that popular. Maybe they don’t want to talk about the possibility that the Golden Dome of Wisdom is actually becoming far less wise.
(319) 398-8262; firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinion content represents the viewpoint of the author or The Gazette editorial board. You can join the conversation by submitting a letter to the editor or guest column or by suggesting a topic for an editorial to email@example.com