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Iowa Senate will bar reporters from the floor
Restriction is blow to government transparency, critics say
Jan. 10, 2022 6:00 am
When Iowa's 2022 legislative session commences today, there will be a notable absence on the floor of the state Senate: reporters.
Republican leaders in the Senate told journalists last week they will no longer be allowed to work on the chamber floor, a change that breaks with a more than 140-year tradition in the Iowa Capitol. The move raised concerns among free press and freedom of information advocates who said it is a blow to transparency and open government that makes it harder for the public to understand, let alone scrutinize, their elected officials.
The new rule denies reporters access to the press benches near senators' desks, a proximity current and former statehouse reporters say is crucial for the most accurate coverage. The position allows reporters to see and hear everything clearly on the Senate floor and to get real-time answers and clarifications.
Beginning this session, reporters will be seated in a upper-level public gallery instead.
"When you take journalists and restrict their access and then you couple that with changes that have occurred in the past couple of years with procedures in Iowa, it makes it that much harder for the public to know what's going on," said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a government transparency watchdog.
In a weekend email, the Linn County League of Women Voters urged its members to call on GOP leaders in the Senate to reverse its policy. “It is critical to our democracy that the free press not be inhibited by our government in reporting the debate and actions of lawmakers,” the message said.
In an email to statehouse reporters, Senate Republican spokesperson Caleb Hunter said the new rule arose from the "evolving nature and definition of 'media.'"
"As non-traditional media outlets proliferate, it creates an increasingly difficult scenario for the Senate, as a governmental entity, to define the criteria of a media outlet," the email reads. Hunter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Longtime statehouse reporters also called the justification specious and said there are no instances of non-traditional media causing disruptions.
"Having real-time access to lawmakers allows reporters to provide important clarification, context and additional information to the public," said a statement from Iowa Capitol Press Association President Erin Murphy, Vice President Kathie Obradovich and Secretary Katarina Sostaric. Murphy is chief of The Gazette’s Des Moines Bureau.
“Lawmakers who have real-time access to reporters can pass along news that might not otherwise be reported, and also hold journalists accountable for errors or unclear information in stories," the association said in the statement. "Putting reporters in the upstairs galleries puts up new barriers to this process, and makes it more difficult for reporters to serve as the eyes and ears of the public."
Obradovich, editor of the Iowa Capital Dispatch online news report, noted that the Iowa House, the judiciary and the governor's office have all managed to define criteria for media outlets and said the Iowa Senate will have to eventually, whenever it next holds news conferences that require credentialing.
Unlike the Washington press corps covering Congress and the White House, the media space at the Iowa Capitol is allocated by the party that has control of the Iowa House and Iowa Senate; both chambers of the statehouse and the governor's office are currently controlled by Republicans.
The change in access comes as government accountability and media watchdogs raise the alarm about the effects of dwindling statehouse coverage across the United States as larger swaths of the country become local news deserts.
A 2014 study of statehouse press corps by the Pew Research Center found less than half of all reporters covering state capitals across the United States did so full-time, with states like South Dakota (at the time of the study) having as few as two reporters dedicated to the covering local lawmakers. Notably, the study found that roughly 16 percent of reporters working in statehouses worked for non-traditional outlets.
Statehouse coverage in Iowa had been disrupted since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, including a suspension of the spring 2020 session. Reporters had worked remotely, covering sessions via livestream or sitting in the upper-deck gallery to allow for social distancing on the chamber floor.
"Our experience covering the legislature from the galleries or remotely was not ideal: We didn't get to know the freshmen (lawmakers), the rapport wasn't there, and it was also difficult to get ahold of somebody if you need clarification," Obradovich said. "It's a poorer report that Iowans are getting when we don't have that kind of access to lawmakers."
William Petroski, who covered the Iowa state politics for nearly 40 years for the Des Moines Register before retiring in 2019, called the partisan decision "terrible for the public and terrible for readers." Under the old rules that let reporters work from the chamber floor, reporters and lawmakers could quickly hold one another accountable, Petroski said.
"You could whisper someone a question; the No. 1 thing is just clarifying what is going on," he said. "I would routinely get the attention of senators and say, 'Hey, did you really do this? Does this bill really say that?' You avoid a lot of mistakes, a lot of misunderstandings. It's not a gotcha situation, but it's better for the flow of information."
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, stressed that Senate Democrats oppose the change and called the move hypocritical of Republican lawmakers.
"This is the party that spent all of last year railing about the First Amendment, protecting the freedom of speech, complaining about censorship," Wahls said.
He said his Republican counterparts did not alert the minority to the change and that he learned of it incidentally after press corps members were told of the new rule during a pre-session meeting.
Wahls said Senate Democrats will introduce a measure to change the rule but admitted it will be an uphill battle.