Why it’s tense between Tennessee lawmakers and statehouse press

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the timing of a letter sent by the Tennessee Capital Hill Press Corps. The incorrect material has been removed.

What better way for lawmakers to welcome the NRA’s national convention in Nashville this weekend than with a public spat with members of the state press corps over a bill to allow permitted guns in parks?

During a testy news conference last week, GOP leaders in the Tennessee House accused statehouse reporters of advocating against the gun measure, debating rather than questioning the lawmakers about it, and acting like Democrats. (You can read a transcript of the presser here, which led to a snarky post at Wonkette.)

That a heated exchange and the gun bill hype is happening just as the NRA rolls into town might not be a giant coincidence. As the politics blog of the business journal Nashville Post noted, the spat transpired the first time this year that House GOP leaders held a detailed sit-down with journalists to discuss legislation. It’s the most high-profile recent example of a growing transparency battle between the statehouse press corps and politicians in Tennessee.

Consider last month, when the state’s four major newspapers joined with The Associated Press to expose an apparent growing trend at the capitol in which House lawmakers hold unannounced secret pre-meetings before publicly discussing pending legislation in committees.

Here’s how The Chattanooga Times Free Press described the practice:

The undisclosed meetings occur behind closed doors in far-flung members’ offices in the state Capitol complex, away from committee rooms where hearings are videostreamed for the public’s benefit.

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At least 10 of the 15 House standing committees are discussing bills first behind closed doors…

Each pre-committee sets its own rules. At least some exclude non-committee members, including bill sponsors, as well as lobbyists. Others don’t. Excluding lobbyists allows members to get a different look on what bills do, members say. Rumblings about pre-meetings on a mass scale have been ongoing for several weeks this session.

When Tennessean reporter David Boucher spoke with legislators for his piece on the secret meetings, he found “none of the lawmakers could say why it was in the state’s best interest for the meetings to be closed and not publicly noticed.” The AP noted how supporters of the pre-meeting process “argued they allowed for free-flowing discussion about bills without lobbyists, the media or parliamentary procedure.”

In Tennessee, the legislature is exempt from the state’s open meetings and sunshine laws, but the reporting still had an impact. Soon after the stories ran in newspapers and on TV broadcasts, the House Speaker sent a memo to committee chairmen urging them to announce meetings and establish an open-door policy.

“There has been this kind of shake-up about stuff that’s happened behind closed doors,” said Andrea Zelinski, the chairwoman of Tennessee’s Capitol Hill Press Corps. But there’s still apparently more work to be done. While more committee chairmen have been allowing reporters or members of the public into their meetings, those meetings still aren’t being announced on the legislative website or posted around the capitol.

“If a reporter sniffs out one of these committees and goes they’re allowed in. Reporters of various outlets have gotten into these, but there’s very little notice of them,” she says. “A lot of these are still going unnoticed.”

Like press rooms at statehouses across the country, Tennessee’s is a fraction of what it was in recent years, with fewer than 10 full-time reporters on the beat, she said. Zelinski herself is a reporter for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene and the Nashville Post, and she covers education in addition to the General Assembly. And in recent years there’s been shifts back and forth when it comes to how easily reporters are able to get information to their readers and viewers.

With a dwindling press corps and on the heels of the transparency fights, I wondered: How did Zelinski and her colleagues respond to accusations from a lawmaker that reporters are being advocates?

“I think we were all blown back. We’ve never been really accused of that,” she said. “All we’re trying to do is to get answers to questions from a panel of folks who haven’t had a press conference with us all year.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.