Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL211.PRB - From Lions to Mosquitoes
It's not been a happy season for Missouri's statehouse press corps.
Once respected as lions, we're now treated by the Senate like bothersome mosquitoes that easily can be swatted away.
It started last fall when the Senate evicted most of the press corps from their traditional offices on the Capitol's first floor to smaller offices in what amounts to an attic of the building.
Because it's not accessible to the physically disabled, reporters using wheelchairs need not apply to be a Missouri statehouse reporter.
Then just before the 2016 legislative session began, the Senate Republican's spokesperson wrote us that many senators requested "some time upon adjournment before giving interviews" and that we should go through Senate staff for interviews rather than directly approaching the lawmakers on the Senate floor after the week's adjournment.
The final assault came just days later when the Senate voted to evict reporters from the press table on the Senate floor.
The Senate's top leader -- Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin -- complained that a couple of times a reporter had tweeted what a senator thought was a private conversation in the Senate during a public session.
The senators I had covered before term limits clearly understood that you did not engage in a private conversation in front of reporters. Instead, they built a private area next to the chamber for their private discussions.
Unlike the MU faculty member that many senators demanded be fired for blocking access by reporters to protesters on public grounds, the senators I first covered did not consider their chamber to be a "safe space" from reporters.
Just the opposite. Rather than swatting us away like mosquitoes, those senators of old empowered our coverage.
For example, the office complex from which reporters have been evicted was arranged by the late Carthage Sen. Dick Webster. He included more space than we requested to provide room for local reporters visiting the statehouse to cover their local legislators.
That overflow space for local reporters is now gone.
As for keeping private conversations private, Webster and his colleagues didn't care. They'd invite us to their regular evening discussions after the session had adjourned.
They never would have expected that we enforce a gag order on what we heard on the Senate floor -- as a couple of senators have suggested to me. Those senators of old would have understood how unprofessional and violative of our ethics that would be.
Instead, the old Senate's respect for an independent press with close proximity to the chamber was such that one senator -- I believe it was Cape Girardeau's Al Spradling -- got a second table for reporters on the Senate floor when he saw how crowded our table had become.
There will be a real impact to the Senate's decision to swat us off the Senate floor. No longer will it be possible to quickly pull a senator aside to ask a question about an ongoing debate while working under deadline.
As one senator noted, it also will make it no longer possible to walk over to the press table during debate to help explain the senator's position on a bill being debated.
To a certain extent, we've inflicted this wound on ourselves.
Several Senate press table seats often are empty. There are fewer statehouse reporters. Some news organizations are less interested in coverage of the governmental process. That second press table in the Senate was taken over by their staff because it was not being used consistently.
But there's another aspect to what the Senate has done that I'm not sure many members appreciate.
For more than four decades in this statehouse, many of my journalism students became dedicated to public policy because of the respect they sensed from the Senate.
That the chamber made space for journalists on the Senate floor itself inspired many of them into government reporting or other arenas of public service.
Treating us like mosquitoes does not help inspire the future generations of journalists I will teach about the majesty of this governmental process.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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