United States Project

Texas Senate cites ‘decorum’ to increase distance between legislators, reporters

January 27, 2017
The Texas State Capitol. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Reporters in Texas have long enjoyed an unusual level of access to their state legislators. But when the legislative session started earlier this month, they became the latest statehouse journalists to find that access diminished in the name of order and propriety. And as the adversarial relationship between the Trump administration and the press intensifies, some Texas reporters argue a similar enmity is helping to fuel access changes in their state.

Texas Senate rules allow journalists on the floor, provided that they remain outside the brass railings that delineate the area where senators sit and debate. Until this session, reporters would often sit in chairs that bordered the rails. There, or in a nearby alcove, they could grab impromptu interviews with legislators.

Now, journalists have been ordered to stay at their specially designated press table on the floor, or else retreat to the gallery. They’ve also been prohibited from conducting interviews on the floor. Senators made the change in order to bring more decorum to the chamber, senate secretary Patsy Spaw says. And while that change may seem small, some who cover the statehouse say it will make it much harder to do their job. 

“It’s a very, very big change,” says Ken Herman, a columnist at the Austin American-Statesman, who has covered the state senate since 1981. 

Herman acknowledges that it’s still possible to request interviews while on the senate floor. A reporter must pass a note to a messenger and arrange to speak with a senator outside the chamber. But, he says, that makes the process much more cumbersome. In the past, when senators passed the press table, “you [would] just follow and chat, and they’re happy to do it. That’s a little less formal, and easier on everyone involved.”

Christopher Hooks, a freelancer whose clients include the Texas Observer and Texas Monthly, argues that senators will be less likely to grant interviews if they have to leave the chamber to speak with reporters. Besides, he says, much of what passes between journalists and senators isn’t formal interviewing. “A lot of the conversation… is just about what’s happening, what the negotiations might be on a particular bill,” he says.

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Is there any substance to the call for more “decorum”? Herman acknowledges that the chamber has occasionally become too loud. But, he says, “I can’t get beyond the fact that in the current mode we’re in with media and office holders, that this was just a subterfuge for giving us less access….And frankly, a lot of them probably hear from their constituents that they don’t trust or like the media.”

Hooks says some of the Tea Party Republicans who dominate the senate have taken real beatings in the press, and some have dished out criticism in return. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said recently that the only people who oppose the Texas “bathroom bill” in surveys are “Anglo liberals, and many of them work in the media.”

Brandi Grissom, Austin bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News—which ran an editorial decrying the rule change for journalists—says she doesn’t see it as part of a wider disintegration of the politician-press relationship. Regarding the reasons for the changes, she says, “All I can do is take them at their word. I don’t know of any ulterior motive.”

Despite the changes, statehouse reporters in Texas still experience better access than many of their compatriots in other states. In some parts of the country, journalists aren’t allowed on the legislative floor at all, but instead must report from designated media seats in the gallery, or even from seats allotted to the general public.

That was the case in Virginia for about three weeks last January. Reporters who arrived for the first day of the session were turned away from their usual table on the floor and sent up to the gallery.

“We immediately protested over this, because we can’t see as well, we can’t see certain parts of the chamber at all, we can’t hear as well,” says statehouse reporter Patrick Wilson, then of The Virginian-Pilot, now with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “And we’re going up and down stairs if we want to try to talk to a senator.”

After a lot of press coverage and a “fair amount of public outrage,” Wilson says, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment reversed the decision. Wilson says no clear reason was given for the initial change, but adds, “My own thought was Senator Norment, like a lot of politicians, is not always in a good relationship with the news media.”

Press secretary for the Virginia Republican caucus Jeff Ryer, however, says the motivation was more practical. “The senate chamber is relatively small here in Virginia. There is not a lot of room. The press corps was seated in an area that put them directly between the senators and the clerk staff, and that was becoming cumbersome.”

As for any difficulties the move may have imposed on journalists, Ryer isn’t buying it. “Just about everybody knows the press corps members are creatures of habit, and also might have a tendency in the profession towards—what do you call that? Obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Ryer says, chuckling.

The change has been more profound in Wyoming’s legislature, which in 2013 moved journalists (except for photographers and cameramen) from the floor to the gallery. Legislative support manager Anthony Sara says the move was precipitated by outlets blurring the lines between reporting and other activities. Wyoming officials noted in response to a 2014 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures, “This change was made because more entities were registering as media—some of which also were registered to lobby.”

Wyoming Tribune Eagle Managing Editor Brian Martin says that move was a minor inconvenience, but the situation worsened when remodeling started at the old capitol building and the legislature moved into temporary facilities: an old Kmart store.

“Now the reporter has to sit in the senate or house gallery, which is a glass walled-off room where the public looks into and sees the backs of everybody’s heads, except for the senate president or house speaker,” Martin says. “So we can only get pictures of certain legislators. It becomes the same people all the time, as opposed to everybody in the senate or everybody in the house.”

Martin’s struggle for good photos could serve as a metaphor for the trend of moving journalists further away from legislators. Many of the reporters we spoke to acknowledged that complaints about sight lines might seem like a non-issue to the uninitiated.

However, as Wilson says, “We’re not sitting [on the floor] because we enjoy being close to the senators and get a kick out of it. It’s to be the eyes and ears of the public, and report to them.”

Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.