Keeping reporters off the Senate floor: The latest restriction on press access in Missouri

The Missouri Senate floor, where local reporters soon won't be allowed while lawmakers are in session. (AP)

For Missouri reporters like Jason Hancock of the Kansas City Star, covering the state Senate is becoming a more demanding job—physically.

A year ago, to make room for the Senate communications staff, the press corps was booted from its first-floor offices, across the hall from the hearing rooms, up to the fifth floor. The only way to get there is a steep climb, Hancock says.

“The elevator does not go all the way to the fifth floor, which I think is a metaphor for something—I’ve not figured out what,” he said. “Up here, we’re incredibly removed.”

That’s getting to be a theme. Last week, in the first official action of the new legislative session, senators voted overwhelmingly to move reporters from a table they had long occupied on the Senate floor. Beginning March 29, the press corps will be required to view the action from a renovated visitors’ gallery overlooking the chamber. On the same day, Senate leadership sent a memo asking reporters not to chase down senators on the floor after adjournment, but to set up interviews via staff instead.

It’s important to keep these changes in perspective: Reporters can do their jobs from the visitors’ gallery, and with inconveniently located office space. At a number of other statehouses—reportedly including Virginia, as of todayand in the Missouri House, journalists don’t have floor access. And the interview guidelines are more a request than an official rule.

Still, the moves have sent a message, intended or not, that the Missouri press corps is less welcome in the halls of power—the latest restrictions on access in a state where that has become a recurring concern.

“It certainly looks like a slow erosion of access in the Capitol,” says Eli Yokley, who spent years covering the statehouse for his PoliticMo website before taking a job with Roll Call in Washington last year.

The circumstances around the removal of journalists from the Senate floor, in particular, are slightly fuzzy and even faintly absurd. Senate leadership initially said that the move, like last year’s, was necessary to make room for legislative staff to do their work. But when the rule change actually came up for a brief floor debate, a GOP Senate leader said that the move was in fact made in response to alleged press misbehavior: Reporters on the floor, he said, had tweeted out what were meant to be “private” conversations among senators.

“Some of the press violated their code of ethics by tweeting out the discussions between senators, and I will not stand for that, so they will not be on the floor of the Senate any more,” Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard said on the floor on Jan. 7. “I will not tolerate that violation of the Fourth Estate.”

Later, he told reporters that the floor is “our space; that’s not your space.”

The Associated Press reported, and multiple reporters confirmed to me, that Senate leaders were upset over an incident in 2014, when a reporter tweeted that then-Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey had told a senator presiding on the dais to rein in another senator who was becoming emotional during a debate.

Details of the alleged offense, though, were hard to come by. Lauren Hieger, a GOP Senate spokeswoman, insisted that moving reporters off the floor was done to create space for staff, not as a “punishment”—despite what Richard had said—and would not offer details on reporters had supposedly done wrong.

A handful of journalists, meanwhile, told me they weren’t sure who sent the offending tweet—though they all agreed it wouldn’t have been a breach of protocol, let alone an ethical violation.

“I think it could have been any of us, and I think they would have been right to do it,” said Yokley, who criticized the rule change in a regular column he still writes for his hometown Joplin Globe.

“Ron Richard is just completely wrong,” said Phill Brooks, a University of Missouri journalism professor and KMOX correspondent who has covered the Capitol for more than four decades. “There are no rules about this.”

Brooks also pushed back on the idea that, as Richard claimed, the floor should be considered the senators’ space. “It’s the people’s chamber,” he said. “It’s a public forum.” (Given that Richard is among those demanding that a University of Missouri professor be fired for her role restricting press coverage of protests there, some commentators have noted the irony in him seeking a “safe space” of his own.)

What might be some practical consequences of keeping reporters off the floor? Hancock, who made waves last year by breaking the story that the then-House speaker was sexting with interns, says he’ll still be able to do his job in the Senate, but the distance puts him and other reporters at a disadvantage, especially since nuts-and-bolts legislating still happens on paper in the chamber.

“If there’s a floor substitute or a lot of amendments, we have to come down to get them,” he says. “If I’m running up and down the stairs every 10 minutes to get amendments, am I going to be able to follow what’s going on on the floor?”

Then there’s just the diminished interaction with policymakers, and the understanding of the practice of politics that can come from proximity. Brooks says he’s most upset on behalf of his journalism students, who will miss the opportunity to see the legislative process up close. One of his former students is Yokley, who wrote in his Joplin Globe column that “being on the floor… helped me and my colleagues better tell stories.”

Of course, politicians and their public information officers aren’t interested in helping journalists tell better stories, and lately they’ve been finding more and more ways not to help. The “slow erosion of access” that worries Yokley seems to have spread from the nation’s capital, where he now works, to Missouri and other states.

Brooks, who once did a stint in Washington, doesn’t want Jefferson City to become more like the Hill. 

“I left DC as a reporter for NPR because I felt the restrictions were too debilitating compared to what I was used to in Missouri,” he says. The next generation of journalists might not notice much of a difference.

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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.