Obama campaign charging news media Election Night fees

Thursday, October 23, 2008

CHICAGO — News organizations will have to pay up if they want a prime spot to cover Democrat Barack Obama's Election Night party in a downtown lakefront park.

Obama's campaign, awash in money after raising a record-shattering $150 million last month, is asking news organizations to pay anywhere from $410 to $1,870 depending on where they want to be and if they want telephone or Internet service in Grant Park.

While it is customary for news organizations to pay their way when covering a presidential campaign, including transportation, hotels and Internet services, some have questioned the Obama campaign's plan.

“It smells a lot like paying for access,” said Al Tompkins, a former TV news director who teaches broadcast and online journalism at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

For $1,870, a news organization can buy space on a main riser that will be covered, plus phone and Internet service, while $410 will get them space on a separate riser for photographers without phone or Internet access, but with electrical power. A seat in a heated press filing center will cost $935 and include power, cable TV, Internet and food.

The Chicago Tribune reported today that a “covered television platform suitable for network anchors would cost $29,700. Parking a satellite truck would be $990.”

There is one press credential reporters can get for free. It will provide access to a standing-room-only outdoor press area with no services that “may have obstructed views.”

Obama's campaign says it's charging the media only for the services it will be providing them, not for coverage, and that such fees are “standard procedure” in presidential campaigns.

“There is no fee to cover our Election Night event. News organizations will be able to cover our event without charge, with full access to our campaign advisers,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement.

LaBolt, in a later statement, added that the campaign “would be surprised” if any news organization would expect it to subsidize coverage “given the appearance conflicts that could create.”

The event will be free and open to the public.

The newspaper also reported today that the Obama campaign was seeking to reassure the city that the campaign would pay for the Election Night event.

“They have assured us that they're willing to pay,” the Tribune quoted Jennifer Martinez, Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications spokeswoman, as saying.

Republican John McCain's campaign did not provide details about news-media arrangements for its Election Night event in Phoenix in time for this story.

Tompkins said it's typical for news media to pay for telecommunications services but he said he was unaware of news organizations having to pay for platform space to cover an event.

Access to covered and heated areas could be key in November when Chicago weather can be fickle for an outdoor event.

Fred Brown, former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the Obama campaign's fee list is a “mercenary way” to approach coverage.

“It seems to needlessly create ill will,” said Brown, a retired capitol bureau chief for The Denver Post who still writes regularly for the newspaper.

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