Gold Dome, Media, Politics, Sherrie Peif

How a clique of Capitol reporters bar access to competitors

During the 2017 Colorado legislative session, the Colorado Capitol Press Association (CCPA) denied me credentials to get on the House and Senate floor.  As a journalist covering the Capitol for Complete Colorado, this hampered my ability to effectively report on Colorado government.  The CCPA’s purported reason is that Complete Colorado is a project of the Independence Institute (II), a non-profit, non-partisan think tank.

File photo - Todd Shepherd
File photo – Todd Shepherd

In short, the CCPA, a small body of reporters from establishment media, controls which journalists are granted preferential access to the floor of the General Assembly. Those who don’t, like me, are at a disadvantage.

As any good journalist would do, I’ll name names. Those CCPA members who refuse to give me fair and open access include: Charles Ashby, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel; Bente Birkeland, KUNC/Rocky Mountain Public Radio; Peter Marcus, ColoradoPolitics.com; Brandon Rittiman, 9News; and Vic Vela, Colorado Public Radio.

Before I get into the specifics of the disadvantage of not being a preferred journalist, a little bit about me. I earned my journalism degree from Metropolitan State University of Colorado and my Broadcast Media degree from Aims Community College and, proudly, I have been a working journalist for nearly two decades.

I spent nearly 13 of those years at the Greeley Tribune newspaper, where I won numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Colorado Press Association (CPA) and the Colorado Associated Press Editors and Reporters (CAPER), including best beat reporting from CAPER, and sweeping all three places in the Education beat from CPA.  This is no small feat, as the Tribune competes against every major daily newspaper in the state except the Denver Post and the Colorado Springs Gazette. My work has been published nationally.

In 2015 I took a job at Complete Colorado as a reporter, and was assigned the Capitol beat for the 2017 session. As a lifelong resident of Greeley, KFKA Radio — Colorado’s oldest radio station — also saw a need for my skills and name recognition, and this legislative season I began covering state-house politics for both my hometown radio station and Complete Colorado. I’m proud of my work.

I admit to being surprised that a small group of my journalism colleagues have the authority to put me at a disadvantage. The CCPA says that it does not impede anyone’s right to report on the state legislature. Technically that’s correct, but it is much more challenging for those who aren’t lucky enough to be a member of the clique.

Technically, a CCPA anointed credential is the only way for journalists to get access to the floor of the House and the Senate — nothing big CCPA has told me.

“Please keep in mind that credentials are for access to the House and Senate floors. Credentials are not necessary to access committee rooms, the galleries or other public areas of the Capitol Building,” the denial email read.

So, I can and do sit in hearings, take notes, and try to grab a legislator on the way out of committee.

It should be noted that both the Speaker of the House and the Senate President can overrule the CCPA, but my understanding is they have never done so. In my case, I appealed the decision to both the Speaker, Crisanta Duran, who did not respond to requests, and the Senate President, Kevin Grantham, who declined to overrule the CCPA.

So during floor debate, I am relegated to the gallery or with the lobbyists who gather just outside the floor. Like a lobbyist, I can send a business card in to a Senator or Representative and ask that they come out and talk to me.

It’s discriminatory and segregates me from the CCPA. “Credentialed” journalists can approach lawmakers and conduct interviews right there on the floor. Those CCPA selected journalists have unique, unrestricted access to build relationships. It’s much harder to say no to someone standing in front of you than it is to just ignore them altogether.

It also puts those of us without credentials at a competitive disadvantage because our denied access forces us to rely upon legislative staff or our business card to get quotes to publish our stories in a timely fashion. So, some stories get canned or published without comment. As the session nIcon_2016_Op_Edears its end, it’s even worse because committees go late into the night or early morning.

Another option for “uncredentialed” reporters is the media list for notifications of briefings and releases. That’s not always reliable either. I requested to be placed on the Colorado Democrats media list three times, but as far as I know was never added.

So no, it’s not as simple as “you just can’t go on the floor.” If it’s that easy, I suggest we fair it up and no one gets on the floor. State legislatures in Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee  don’t allow it. Maybe Colorado should move in that direction, as allowing a small group of reporters to pick who is and who isn’t allowed is a violation of the spirit of a free press.

Essentially, the roadblocks I face are because the CCPA doesn’t believe I can be “fair” because of the political philosophy of my employer.  The double standard here is significant.

The most recent email I got from CCPA said: “Because of your continued affiliation with an organization that does not meet the criteria set forth in our bylaws (see our response to your Complete Colorado application on Jan. 26) we regret to inform you that your application for credentials on the floors of the House and Senate will not be recommended for approval. … And in case you haven’t taken the time to read our bylaws, any group that an applicant works for that engages in electioneering, as the Independence Institute clearly does, is in violation of those bylaws.”

This was in response to asking for credentials for my reporting with KFKA Radio in Greeley. But because I also work for Complete Colorado, KFKA is out. But more importantly, the whole “electioneering” thing is a cute rationalization.

Every newspaper I know, along with every radio and television station have editorial boards or opinion columnists or commenters, or otherwise engage in editorializing. Lawmakers meet with those folks regularly to persuade them to endorse or not endorse. Those same entities have also had management of their organizations testify on bills, most recently Senate Bill 17-040, an update of Colorado’s open records law. They regularly endorse or otherwise comment on candidates, measures and initiatives.

So how is what I do for Complete Colorado any different? It’s not.

Reporters are separate of their organization’s editorial staff. So am I. The news component of Complete Colorado does not electioneer, testify or editorialize. The Independence Institute does.

II acts as my editorial board in a sense.

But the real rub is that Complete Colorado is outside the establishment press, and we let it be known and so do others.  Complete Colorado is credentialed through the Colorado Broadcasters Association. We have been written about by The Columbia Journalism Review which said: “a new breed of investigative reporters who work for state-based ideological think tanks can break news, hold public officials accountable, and, under certain circumstances, be a force for better journalism.”

Westword recently awarded Complete Colorado the Best Source for Up to Date Political Information saying: “The frequently updated assemblage of links, from media sources of every description, includes plenty of politics. And while many of the voices come from a conservative perspective, the results are hardly one-sided: No fake news here.”

Let me repeat that last part: “No fake news here.”

During this last legislative session, I broke several original stories, essentially scooping the CCPA credentialed journalists at the Capitol.  Examples of that are here, and hereMy work for Complete Colorado has been cited by other media outlets in their own reporting (here, here, and here, for example) including those with reporters credentialed by the CCPA. And, yes, I did this without access to the Senate or House floor, but that doesn’t make a CCPA clique appropriate.

Our founding fathers made it clear that government officials can’t pass laws abridging the freedom of the press.   Here in Colorado though, there’s a handful of journalists abridging press freedom through exclusion, sanctioned by the legislature.

Sherrie Peif is a reporter for Complete Colorado.

Comments

comments

Comments are closed.