The Utah House has limited the press’s ability to access lawmakers, following the state senate’s approval of similar restrictions last month.
It took representatives only 20 minutes to debate the rule change before voting 65-9 in favor of restricting press access.
Everyone should have a problem with that.
It’s understandable that people have complicated feelings about the press. We live in a time where there is so much information swirling about a person that it’s difficult to know what’s true, what’s fake, or even what’s happening right in front of our noses.
However, limiting the press is not the solution.
Democracy as we know it is deeply reliant on a robust and free press asking all the questions it can, even if the legislature does not like answering them. If we restrain the press, it becomes harder to keep democracy functioning like it should.
Perhaps it’s hyperbolic to say something like that, though — surely these bills aren’t that bad.
The sponsor of the House resolution, Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said, “We’re not trying to limit the media. They’re a valuable partner. We need them. We appreciate them and we want them to have continued access. But these are the non-public areas. They just have to get permission from the speaker or the designee.”
However, the new rules are pretty clear about limiting the press.
Sure, reporters are free to enter non-public areas to ask questions and interview lawmakers, but only “with permission of the speaker or the speaker’s designee.” So it’s fine to ask questions, but only when a special designee says you can — otherwise, stay in your box and keep quiet.
If a reporter is granted permission from the media designee to speak with lawmakers, the designee will then follow the reporter into a designated area to make sure they only talk to the legislator they specifically asked to interview.
Once the interview is complete, the media designee will “ensure that the news media promptly exit the designated area.”
This type of language evokes some images in my mind, like a referee dictating where a player can and cannot be at any given time on a field, or a kindergarten teacher escorting a child to the restroom so they don’t get lost.
Whatever image these new rules evoke, it is not one of a free press holding lawmakers accountable to the people they represent. It is one that limits and disrupts the free press that our democracy relies upon.
Legislators being asked questions about the laws they pass isn’t the only concern addressed by these new rules.
This bill also restricts camera placement in committee hearings with specific language meant to limit what reporters can do when “present for a meeting of a House standing committee or any other special committee of the House, news media may not enter the area behind the dais without the permission of the committee chair.” Dunnigan said this is to alleviate uncomfortable feelings that lawmakers feel when they look at their phones while a camera is behind them.
If legislators were to ever actually tune into the news, they would see that the cameras are not pointed at them or their phones, but rather set up so that viewers can see the person testifying at the hearing. Utahns don’t care all that much if lawmakers are checking on their fantasy teams in the middle of a committee meeting, though they may prefer that lawmakers pay more attention to their work.
These new rules aren’t really about protecting legislators from “gotcha” questions from the press, or helping lawmakers feel more comfortable in committee hearings — they are about trying to make it harder for the press to do their job. A job that everyone in this state is reliant on, because if the press cannot hold lawmakers accountable, who will?
In response to this press restriction, some have suggested the creation of an official Capitol Press Corps to give journalists some more say in the process. Ranae Cowley Laub from the Utah Media Coalition said that it would “offer the press the opportunity to be a part of some of the decisions made regarding their practice and profession.”
An official Capitol Press Corps might be able to resist some of the most dangerous ideas being presented in the new rules, but it doesn’t provide a solution ensuring a free and able press in the Utah legislature. There’s no guarantee that a Capitol Press Corps would have the power to ensure journalists working on Capitol Hill had the access they needed to do their jobs. The legislature could choose to ignore the press corps suggestions, and it also wouldn’t prevent a future legislature from gutting whatever progress the press corps might achieve.
These clear efforts to restrict the press are not conducive to the democratic values that this state and nation are built upon. If Utah lawmakers value democracy, they will alter course and grant the press the access it needs to hold those in power accountable to the voters who gave them that power.