Why Kansas statehouse reporters staged a walkout

It may have all been just a big misunderstanding. But the Kansas statehouse press corps scored a point for transparency on Monday, when they staged a walkout rather than take part in an off-the-record briefing from legislators.

The subject at hand was the controversial education-funding bill that is currently speeding through the state legislature—a key plank in Gov. Sam Brownback’s efforts to fill a severe budget hole. On Monday, a day before the measure was to come up for a vote in committee, reporters were invited to a briefing with the bill’s sponsors. But there was an unusual condition, according to Bryan Lowry of The Wichita Eagle.

“A GOP staffer was telling us that we were going to have this press conference, but it was going to be an off-record press conference—which none of us had even heard of before,” Lowry said.

One-on-one briefings off the record are not uncommon at the Kansas statehouse, but off-the-record group briefings—while increasingly the norm in Washington—are “unprecedented” in Topeka, Lowry said.

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“It wasn’t clear what the purpose of this meeting was, whether it was to spin us or what,” he said.

The issue of education is sensitive topic for Kansas Republicans, who have been accused by critics of seeking to gut school funding to finance major tax cuts that went into effect in 2013. Partly because of that political sensitivity, and partly because of the speed with which the bill, introduced late last week, is moving through the legislature, Lowry and others in the press corps were on their guard. He and his colleagues—from The Associated Press,Kansas City Star, Topeka Capital-Journal, and Lawrence Journal-World—met at the Capitol before the scheduled briefing on Monday to discuss what to do, he said.

“We agreed that whatever we did, we wanted to be unified,” Lowry said. They decided that they would participate in the briefing only on the condition that they be allowed to ask questions on the record.

But when they went to the briefing site, at the office of one of the bill sponsors, and made their conditions known, the same House GOP staffer refused to guarantee that any part of the briefing would be on the record, he said.

It was longtime Associated Press bureau chief John Hanna, Lowry said, who replied, “I don’t agree to that.”

And so, he said, “We walked.” The five reporters who had met before the meeting were joined in the walkout by a reporter for the nonprofit Kansas Health Institute News Service.

About a half-hour later, the Kansas House GOP tweeted an indignant response, contending that the legislators had planned to take questions “on background then open for questions.” But only minutes after that, Lowry got a call from one of the bill sponsors, state Sen. Ty Masterson, who had not been present for the reporters’ exchange with the staffer. Masterson told Lowry he had never intended the briefing to be off the record and would be happy to go on-record. He invited the reporters up to his office, where he and his cosponsor on the bill took their questions without precondition.

Lowry said Masterson was “very gracious” in resolving the conflict, and “we had a pretty good exchange.” Masterson did not reply to a request for comment on this story.

Even if the conflict was really just the result of an innocent miscommunication (the incident merited only a passing reference in stories by Lowry and Jonathan Shorman of the Capital-Journal), the reporters’ brief revolt makes a useful statement. It made sure that elected officials would be on the record about a controversial topic. In the context of ongoing battles over government transparency in Kansas, it’s a signal that reporters will work together to prevent officials from ducking accountability.

And in the wider context of political reporting, as off-record briefings and similar approaches increasingly migrate from Washington to state and city governments, the message is that–at least for now–this particular DC practice won’t fly in Kansas.

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Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.