Penned-up press can’t be effective watchdog

Friday, October 12, 2012

Watchdogs are not effective when they are penned up or kept out of the yard entirely.

The First Amendment protects the rights of a free press for everyone, not just those with printing presses, broadcast stations or Internet news operations.

But having the right of a free press for all also conveys a special responsibility to the few who do work for such organizations. The nation’s Founders presupposed that those in the business of journalism — in today’s world, news and information — would also act as the proverbial “watchdog on government.”

The outside monitor would serve to hold accountable those public officials, agencies and operations funded by public funds, and to report back independently to voters and taxpayers, who thus would have the best and largest amount of information from which to make engaged decisions so fundamental to a democratic republic.

Whew. That’s a mouthful — and a serious job, too, and never more so than in elections, when public policy for multiple years is decided.

So it’s disheartening to see incidents where states and the courts — and even other news operations — block the watchdogs from doing their job:

  • In New Jersey, the state’s press association has sued the state over a rule that will keep photographers and reporters at least 100 feet away from polling areas on Election Day. The news groups note that the farther from the polling location, the more difficult the newsgathering task. Voters may well be in their cars, driving away, before a question can be posed, or lost in crowds, or confused with those arriving to vote.

Lost will be the chance to ask immediately questions about the nature of the vote: Was the machine easy or difficult to use? Did poll workers adhere to nonpartisan roles?

  • In Pennsylvania, a federal judge dismissed a newspaper’s request for access to county polling places to watch the signing-in process, supporting an earlier decision by state election officials. U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer said that since the order that observers stay 10 feet away from polling places applied to all except voters and election workers, there was no First Amendment violation.

Though Fischer is right that no one news operation is being singled out for exclusion, her decision keeps the public’s independent advocate from observing voters signing up to receive a ballot, which would seem a legitimate role in an election year when alleged voter fraud and new ID requirements are in play.

  • In an incident that tears at the very spirit of a constitutional protection for a free press, the Associated Press and other news operations refused to cover a West Virginia gubernatorial debate on Oct. 9 because of restrictions on news coverage, set in part by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association.

The debate’s sponsors, which also included AARP, barred still photographers and reporters from the same room as the candidates. Third-party candidates were not invited to attend. The groups did permit video coverage and provided an adjoining room for journalists to view the debate, and the 200-seat theater was filled with invited guests from both major parties. There were no “public” seats in either room.

“There is no reason a small pool of reporters and photographers could not be accommodated in the hall during this important event,” said AP Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes, in a story by AP. “This is the one opportunity the people of West Virginia have to watch the two candidates engage. We need to offer as many perspectives as possible to capture the event and the candidates’ positions accurately and with fairness and balance. If organizers of presidential debates can figure out how to do it, the organizers of this debate could, too.”

What was to be lost by inviting the press — and thus, the public — in? A few seats for the privileged, perhaps?

Voters may well prefer not to respond to reporters’ questions and election officials may find it more efficient to operate out of the view of cameras and journalists. And broadcasters, to their shame, may well want to keep a prime election event such as a debate to themselves.

But none of those reasons rises to the level that justifies screening out the public or its independent observers at so critical a time.

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