COLUMN: Refusing to allow certain media, Nixon distances himself from public

Monday, November 29, 2010 | 3:56 p.m. CST; updated 12:42 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 30, 2010

There are plenty of reasons to hate the media. I won’t make any excuses for that.

We shove microphones in your face in times of personal tragedy. We tend to oversimplify and undercontextualize. Some of us are not above digging through your trash for a story.


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Just say the word “media” out loud. It’s hard not to say without a sneer.

When the rich, the famous or the powerful have a problem with their image, blaming the media for unfair treatment (read: Sarah Palin and the “lamestream” media) is an easy go-to strategy that will always pick up some points with the public.

But on the final day of the Missouri General Assembly’s 2010 session, I experienced something truly surreal.

I witnessed outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, give props to the press for all of our work in the capital that year.

An elected official showing the media some gratitude? I hadn’t been sleeping much during the last few weeks of the session; I could have been dreaming.

Shields’ comments that day, however, were much easier to believe than hearing that, on Nov. 17, Gov. Jay Nixon had once again snubbed the Jefferson City press corps and hand-picked a group of reporters that would be attending his “background briefing” on higher education.

Higher education reporters from the Columbia Daily Tribune, the Springfield News-Leader and The Kansas City Star were on the list to get into "Club Nix" that day, as were state government reporters from The Associated Press and Stateline, a national news publication that focuses on politics in the states.

Among the losers who had to stand outside in line arguing with the bouncer were student reporters who provide content to the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and KMOX in St. Louis.

The reason for Nixon’s game of favorites? His press people say it was because the governor wanted to speak with higher education beat reporters when he delivered the news that day that state funding for Missouri’s colleges and universities may very well see a reduction this year.

As if higher education were too complex a topic that the regular statehouse press corps would never comprehend it.

Also left out in the cold were veteran statehouse reporters Bob Priddy of MissouriNet and Phill Brooks, director of the MU School of Journalism’s state government reporting program. Much of the Capitol press corps did not even know the meeting was taking place.

For some readers, it might be hard for me to drum up any sympathy for my fellow journalists on this issue. But limiting press access to the governor is the same as limiting the public’s access to our state’s top official.

In an interview, Brooks said that the press corps has not had any meaningful access to the Democratic governor since the Nov. 2 election, when Republicans grew their ranks in both the Missouri House and the Missouri Senate.

Since that time, we have also learned that Nixon will have to draft a budget for the upcoming legislative session containing up to $1 billion less than what state leaders were spending in 2000. In this kind of situation, funding for K-12 education — which leaders typically loathe to cut — can no longer be considered a sacred cow.

In addition, unemployment in Missouri is on the uptick, and the Missouri Department of Labor is borrowing more and more from the federal government to pay Missourians’ unemployment insurance.

And, just announced last week, Nixon will back a controversial proposal to bring a second nuclear power plant to Callaway County, a project that will be paid for in part by increased utility rates for consumers.

It is my hope that the invitation-only arrangements made for the Nov. 17 press conference were a one-time experiment by Nixon’s media staffers and that this does not become common practice.

I’m not even asking that he or anyone from his office extend us the same amount of gratitude that Shields did just a few months ago. Just let us do our jobs.

In terms of political livelihood, this is not the right time for Nixon to shut out public access, as he has already begun to pool support for his 2012 re-election bid. Endorsements from newspapers still mean something in political campaigns, and they’re going to be hard to come by if he is barring their reporters from his conferences.

And it is downright disrespectful to the people of Missouri to try to limit a Jefferson City press corps that serves that public by asking tough questions of their elected officials. Gov. Nixon, I think the people who pick up the tab for your travel expenses deserve at least that much.

What is unfair to the press is, in essence, unfair to the people.

Andrew Denney is a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism and a political science major at MU. He is also a copy editor for the Missourian. He is set to graduate in December.


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