Press exiled to bleachers

JEFFERSON CITY, MO. – In 1974, the Missouri Egg Producers Association put a hard-boiled egg on the desk of each member of the state Senate as a gift.

The morning the eggs appeared, before the session began, two senators played catch with one in the rear of the chamber. An egg smashed against a marble wall.

A St. Louis Globe-Democrat reporter wrote an account of the incident, which appeared in the newspaper the next morning. One senator angered by the story walked to the Senate press table and smashed an egg down to let his feelings be known.

But the Senate did not throw the press out.

A few years later, when Sen. Nelson Tinnin, a Democrat from Hornersville, fell asleep in his chair, a United Press International reporter wrote a story about it. Tinnin was upset and kicked the reporter in the buttocks the next time the two were together. That prompted some wags to refer to Tinnin as “the booter from the Bootheel.”

But they did not throw the press off the Senate floor.

Last week it seemed that the Missouri senators’ patience with the public disclosure of their antics was exhausted. As the 2016 session began, the Republican-controlled Senate adopted a new rule: Effective March 29 reporters would no longer be able to witness what’s happening from a 10-seat table on the Senate floor. Instead, the press would be moved to a place in the upper gallery.

“Some of the press violated their code of ethics by tweeting out discussions between senators, and I will not stand for that so they will not be on the floor of the Senate anymore,” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin.

Sen. Jill Schupp, a Democrat from St. Louis County, said she liked having the press close by.

“Anything they hear they’re entitled to tweet,” Schupp said. “This is a public spot.”

“Not necessarily,” Richard replied. “Not a private conversation between senators on debate and on issues, and I think that’s a violation.”

Richard did not elaborate as to what tweeted conversation caused the problem. A request to interview Richard for this story was referred to one of the Senate’s communications people, who said Richard was done talking about it and was too busy to be interviewed.

But the Associated Press reported that Richard’s predecessor, Tom Dempsey, was upset in 2014 because a reporter had sent out a twitter message disclosing that Dempsey had ordered the Senate’s presiding officer to restore order in the chamber. According to the AP, Dempsey’s chief of staff at the time said Dempsey had presumed his instructions were a private conversation. Dempsey, a Republican from St. Charles, resigned his seat last year to become a lobbyist.

Why had it taken so long, from 2014 until now, for the Senate to make this move? Some long time Senate observers said that since veterans like Virginia Young, chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch bureau, and Bob Priddy, long-time news director of the Missourinet, had recently retired, there were fewer journalists steeped in tradition who would stand up to oppose the move. Since the new capital building opened in 1919, reporters have been covering the Senate from the table on the floor of the chamber.

Priddy, in a personal blogpost earlier this week, said moving the press amounted to “pettiness.”

“The Senate is doing nothing to keep members from getting text messages on their cell phones from lobbyists in the halls who often tell them how to answer questions or what their positions should be during discussions of bills,” Priddy wrote. “Reporters are not welcome physically in the Senate chamber. But the virtual presence of special interests gets a pass.”

Coverage Obstacle

Moving the reporters from the floor to the gallery is a lot like shifting from a box seat to the bleachers. You’re still able to see the game but you might miss interesting details.

Alex Stuckey, who covers the legislature for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said the view of some senators’ desks may be obscured from the seats in the proposed new press section.

“I think it will make it more difficult to see who’s talking and that may make it more difficult to follow what’s going on,” Stuckey said.

Getting pages of amendments, which can come fast and furious during a Senate floor session, will be more of a problem. And since reporters will be one floor above where the senators are located, it will be harder to grab someone to ask a question.

Senators will like that. Many of them came over from the House, and that’s how it works there. Reporters once covered the House from its floor but Democrats moved them to an upper gallery in the 1960s.

The public couldn’t care less where reporters sit to cover Senate happenings. The senators know they won’t hear complaints from their constituents. But the Senate’s 26-4 vote to eject the press is the latest in a long series of developments limiting public contact with their elected representatives as well as the media’s opportunity to report on what they are doing.

Missouri’s open meetings law says: “It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.” But that doesn’t prevent elected officials from erecting filters to screen what’s going on.

During budget negotiations between the House and Senate, when five members of one body horse trade with five from the other, the negotiating appears in the open. But people in the audience can’t hear what’s happening because all the lawmakers sit at a table and whisper to one another.

Senate committees hold open sessions. But more than once in recent years, chairmen have limited how television cameras may record the events.

Architects under lawmakers’ direction have played their role in limiting access to government officials. A few years ago, the Senate erected glass partitions around its chamber to keep the public at bay. People can come in only by invitation of the senators.

Attendance at Senate committee functions has been limited by the construction of smaller meeting rooms cutting down the numbers who can attend. The legislature now has fewer night committee meetings, meaning that if someone from a distance wants to come and comment on a bill, they have to take a day off of work to do so. As a result paid lobbyists provide most of the input on what’s being considered in Jefferson City.

When Priddy became news director of the Missourinet in 1975, senators were readily accessible, could be interviewed on the spot and were game to give answers. There were no hired spokesmen then to run interference.

Now the Senate has an elaborate communications operation with people hired year-round for a session that lasts five months. The majority Republican caucus has a communications director, Lauren Hieger, who is paid $67,500 annually. The minority Democratic contingent has a similar position occupied by Charles Hatcher, whose annual salary is $78,124. In addition, there are five “public information specialists” on the Senate payroll collecting a total of $177,610 per year.

At the beginning of this legislative session, Hieger sent a message to the capital press corps asking its members to wait before pestering them with questions.

“I have also had a request from many senators that they have some time upon adjournment before giving interviews,” Hieger wrote. “To help them with that request, I ask that if you have a specific senator you would like to interview to either let me, Charles Hatcher, or his or her staff member know.”

In his blog comment on Hieger’s message, Priddy wrote: “Who needs some partisan functionary to tell them a reporter wants to ask a question?”

Author’s note: Terry Ganey covered the Missouri Legislature for 35 years for the Associated Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Share our journalism