Ever since he started covering the Ohio legislature and governor in the middle of the pandemic last summer, Josh Rultenberg, a reporter for Spectrum News 1, has tried to limit the time he spends at the state capitol building.
After the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., he’s become especially leery.
“Truth be told, I’ve done my best to actually physically stay away from the statehouse,” said Rultenberg, who also covers the Ohio Supreme Court for the 24-hour local broadcast network.
Security has increased around the Columbus statehouse and state government buildings since the attack on the U.S. Capitol that left five dead. But armed attacks at statehouse buildings already had been on the rise. A recent ProPublica report found that state governments around the country became flashpoints for conservative anger about the coronavirus lockdown and Donald Trump’s electoral defeat. Armed right-wing activists forced their way into state capitols in Idaho, Michigan and Oregon.
Protests in Columbus started ahead of the inauguration, but security was never breached. So far there have been no major attacks on statehouse buildings since the assault on the U.S. Capitol.
“I would say they’re probably having a whole lot of success right now guarding the statehouse and other government buildings in Columbus because we haven’t heard anything,” Rultenberg said.
Rultenberg and statehouse reporters have still been able to cover the Ohio statehouse but access to the building has been limited. Ohio National Guard troops stand guard around the perimeter.
In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered local and state police as well as the Illinois National Guard to secure the capitol building in the days leading up to the inauguration.
“Staff with the Architect of the Capitol started to board up windows and entrances to the complex several days before Inauguration Day,” said Mike Miletich, capitol bureau chief for Quincy Media. He reports on state politics for five of Illinois TV stations.
The building was completely closed on Jan. 20 when President Joseph Biden was sworn in as president of the United States. “We planned in advance and took all of our equipment out of the bureau in order to safely work from home,” Miletich said.
Only a handful of protesters showed up.
Miletich said reporters are still on edge.
“It’s hard to say when people may be violent. We have never seen guns out at the rallies or protests in Springfield, but reporters have been shoved and yelled at by participants,” he said. “A protester spat on me during a large rally a few months ago. While that didn’t cause me physical harm, it is a significant issue during a pandemic.”
He said many reporters are having to consider personal safety and health for the first time on local reporting beat.
“The hardest part is documenting this horrific time in our history without risking our lives,” he said.
John O’Connor, a longtime reporter for the Associated Press in Illinois, recalled what it was like reporting on the state capitol after 9/11.
“When I think of it, there was a lot of amped-up security talk after 9/11, but it didn’t get real until a few years later,” O’Connor said. Those who frequented the statehouse were issued ID badges, and there was talk of installing metal detectors in the building.
There were some critics of the security changes, arguing that it made the capitol building less accessible to the people, including reporters, an issue that is playing out in the nation’s capital right now as well.
“Looking back over 20 years, I remember at the time thinking, this is a shame, to put these machines in the entryways of a historic building erected in the 1870s. But on the other hand, I was surprised at how long it took,” O’Connor said.
Although inauguration day remained relatively peaceful at the Illinois capitol, the boarded up windows were a reminder of the events that had transpired.
“It was lonely, appeared deserted and even abandoned. It was odd to be denied entry to the Capitol; I was turned away upon showing my badge,” O’Connor said.
So, what comes next? The changes after 9/11 were by no means immediate. O’Connor is not so sure. “I don’t anticipate a lot of changes,” he said. “ In terms of security, officials have done about all they can do while keeping this taxpayer-funded facility, this home of democracy in the state, accessible to its citizens.”
He predicts a new focus on domestic security.
“I foresee greater scrutiny on those groups, knowing their agendas and their histories, and knowing if they really are whom they purport to be,” O’Connor said.
Brianna Connock is an Ohio-based correspondent double-majoring in Journalism and Political Science at the University of Cincinnati (UC). Along with her work at Gateway Journalism Review, she is a Features and Life & Arts reporter for The News Record.