Capital Notes: The media and the Legislature

Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2001

A leading senator recently castigated a leading media outlet during a floor speech.

"Alaskans deserve better," the senator told the state on "Gavel to Gavel."

A reporter from a different organization later asked a different senator about scheduling an interview on a different issue. "No," the senator said.

"Well, why not?" the reporter asked.

"Because I don't want to," the senator explained.

Things like this started a discussion about whether media-legislative relations in Alaska are dysfunctional. OK, I started it.

I come from an experience in Minnesota in which the speaker of the House and the House majority leader have a weekly coffee-and-donut session with the Capitol press corps, a tradition that has survived three changes in majority control over 15 years. In which legislators sometimes turned up on short, if any, notice in the pressroom to make announcements and take questions. In which no week of session passed without at least two news conferences. And in which you could expect your phone calls to be returned.

(Mind you, the governor of Minnesota is another story altogether.)

Things are different here. Often legislators must be physically cornered before commenting. To better appreciate the difference, I asked other reporters, on a not-for-attribution basis, to comment on their experiences with legislators. The responses were surprisingly diverse.

The recent dressing-down of a particular reporter on the Senate floor "appalled" one member of the Capitol press corps and another called it "a lack of political savvy," while a couple of others said that the response was proportional to problems with the news stories.

Invariably, tales from previous sessions surfaced. One reporter recounted being called a "scumbag" by a former House speaker in a Capitol hallway.

Another said a member of Senate leadership declared: "You're a liar - and I don't even know you!"

"I'm a human being. I want to be liked. I have feelings," said a reporter, challenging conventional wisdom about the fourth estate. "But at the same time, I have a duty to be the eyes and ears of the public here."

A few distinctions were posed:

The Senate "culture" is viewed as more pugilistic. This is a majority view (not a consensus), although no one could explain it. "They're mean over there," someone said.

Legislators respond more faithfully to news organizations based in their hometowns, sometimes overlooking the potential statewide reach of any member of The Associated Press. However, some Anchorage Republicans clearly regard the Anchorage Daily News as going beyond the normal adversarial stance that politicians should expect from newspapers.

The Capitol is "like a really small town: New people aren't accepted easily." Anchorage Republican Sen. Dave Donley cited recently departed AP writer Paul Queary as being particularly fair and objective. But certain other reporters, working from a liberal ideological bias, deliberately seek "out of context" quotes in an effort to embarrass Republicans, Donley said. "I don't think the coverage is as complete as you'd see in other states."

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat who is one of the few ex-journalists in the Legislature, said: "As frequently as reporters make mistakes, so do legislators." Often, what makes legislators fearful of media encounters is simply the prospect of an unscripted situation, Elton said.

Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Wrangell Republican who also served in the North Carolina House, says reporters there were relentlessly pro-Democrat, while she finds coverage in Alaska "more even." Alaska House Republicans hold fewer news conferences, not for any reason of strategy, but apparently just because of the personality of leadership, she said. She thinks that hampers their message.

One veteran reporter said that legislators respect hard work and competence. The closed-door caucus meetings and dearth of formal press availabilities aren't real impediments to getting important information, this person said. "The truth is out there - you can find it." Another said that reporters who fear loss of access and therefore don't ask tough questions have lowered the standards for interviews across-the-board.

Elton, a couple of reporters and one legislative staffer described the media-legislative relationship as "symbiotic." That is to say, friction and frustration notwithstanding, in the end we need each other.

Quote marks:

"It's like nobody's listening. The enchanting idea is being sold." - Sen. Robin Taylor, Wrangell Republican, on the advancement of fast ferries by the Knowles administration, despite the financial disaster experienced by British Columbia

"We are No. 1 in regards to alcohol in every way, shape and form, and unfortunately, it's all negative." - Rep. Lisa Murkowski, Anchorage Republican, sponsor of an increase in the alcohol excise tax

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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