CAP TIMES: Journalists face restrictions as they cover Election Night events

November 9, 2012
Jessica Vanegeren
news photo

Phil Ejercito, a Madison-based freelance photographer, took the usual steps prior to showing up Tuesday to photograph what turned into the election night victory party for Wisconsin’s new senator, Tammy Baldwin.

After showing identification, he was handed press credentials and then guided to the press area that included nearly 100 other journalists.

But as 8 p.m. approached and the ballroom at Monona Terrace began to fill with roughly 1,000 members of the public, a velvet red rope similar to what you’d find in a movie theater started to be drawn tight to cordon off the media area.

Those who attempted to leave were informed that interviews with the public were not allowed. Neither was taking photographs outside the roped-off area. Reporters and photographers who did leave the press area were questioned as to their intentions and even followed by staffers.

Ejercito, standing outside the media area, camera in hand, was tapped on the shoulder by a campaign staffer and told to return to what he now calls the “press pen.”

“I don’t expect to be coddled or treated any differently than the general public,” Ejercito says. “But my access at an event should not be any less than the public’s.”

The same corralling of the media was taking place at the election night party of Baldwin’s opponent, Republican Tommy Thompson, about an hour away at the Marriott Milwaukee West in Pewaukee.

Michael King, a staff photographer for the Wisconsin State Journal and secretary of the Wisconsin News Photographers Association and the National Press Photographers Association, was assigned to the Thompson event.

King says he was stopped and told “media and cameras aren't allowed out there” when he attempted to take his camera out of the designated press area to photograph people in the crowd watching election results roll in on a big-screen TV.

He was also told by a Thompson campaign staffer that the press wouldn't be able to interview party attendees on the floor. Instead, he was told "the campaign would bring people over to us.”

"That's when I realized I wasn't in a media work area. I was in a media pen," King says.

Michael Wagner, an assistant professor of journalism at UW-Madison, says this attempted control of the media not only makes it difficult for journalists to do their jobs but hinders the democratic process that in part relies on the media to connect the public with elected officials.

“For that kind of message control to sift down to an election night party is cause for concern,” Wagner says.

Likewise, restricting the media’s access to the public is troubling, Wagner says, because it limits the depth in the marketplace of ideas, something that distinguishes a democracy from other forms of government.

Democracy is best served, he says, when a multitude of ideas compete in the marketplace. For that to occur, the media has to have access to the public.

The controls on press access were not visible earlier in the Senate campaign. Numerous phone calls Thursday to the Baldwin and Thompson campaigns seeking an explanation for the change were not returned.

By stripping away access to the public, journalists were left with nothing but the speeches of politicians to quote or film. Granted, most journalists sneaked out of the roped-off media areas because it was their job to get more than that for their stories.

Such restrictions on the media are becoming more common, especially at the national level. In some instances, reporters have been told they cannot quote senators or Congress members unless the quotes are approved ahead of time by the politicians’ offices.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, and the money and politics project director with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, says the ongoing crackdown on access to candidates and politicians is a worrying trend.

He says politicians often play “favorites” with reporters once elected to office or outright deny requests for access on the campaign trail. He points to the 2010 campaign of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson as an example.

When Johnson was running against longtime Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold two years ago, he denied most media access to his campaign.

Christian Schneider, with the conservative think tank Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, was granted sole access to Johnson on the campaign trail for six months, presumably because the views of his employer closely aligned with those of Johnson.

The result was a five-part series that provided the most comprehensive insight into Johnson's campaign.

The UW’s Wagner says the campaigns are taking these actions to control the message in an age when video of a politician’s slip of the tongue or other gaffe can be instantly spread around the web through social media.

“It is fair to say that journalists sometimes choose the odd over the most useful information to know,” Wagner says. “But that’s no excuse for candidates to quarantine journalists at an election party.”

Ejercito, the freelance photographer, says he tried to view the treatment of media at Baldwin’s party as a nuisance that he wouldn’t let interfere with his work.

“As a journalist, I was there to do my job and I decided to do it, in spite of being pestered,” he says. “It was a matter of knowing I was in the right.”

State Journal photographer King says by the time Thompson took the stage to make his concession speech, the hold on the press had loosened and they were once again allowed to move freely.

"There’s a sense that campaigns are less concerned about getting their message out through mass media these days, and they lack an understanding of how we work and what we need in order to do political coverage,” King says. “And for certain, campaigns are no longer trying to hide overt, heavy-handed attempts to control us.