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Limiting Freedom of the Press at the State House

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY— Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has been tasked with compiling new rules and procedures for the Alabama Senate. One of the new rules Orr will try to implement will be to limit who is granted access to cover the State House as a member of the Capital Press Corps.

Over the last two years, changes to rules and legislation have been introduced to give the Speaker of the House, Senate President Pro Tem and the Lt. Governor sole discretion as to who may be considered “legitimate” Press in the State.

Currently, the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House, alone, have the responsibility of allocating Press credentials.

Deciding Freedom of the Press became an issue in 2012 after the Alabama Political Reporter published its first article spotlighting President Pro Tem Del Marsh’s solicitation of gaming money from the Poarch Creek Indians (PCI). A factually accurate report was confirmed years later, during an internal investigation by the State Republican Legislative Council.

The pressure to change the long-standing rule to muzzle reporters became even more intense later in 2012, when the Alabama Political Reporter began to publish well-documented questionable actions by Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard. These articles were instrumental in leading the way to his indictment on 23 felony counts of public corruption.

So, now, it is Sen. Orr who will carry the banner against Freedom of the Press in Alabama; on Hubbard’s and Marsh’s behalf, of course.

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Orr’s job is not to redefine who is or who is not a journalist, or what is or what is not a news organization. No. His “solemn” task is to seek out and eliminate anyone who might document, suspect or expose actual criminal activities at the State House.

What Orr and his fellow Republican super majority brethren will do, is say that only a reporter whose articles appear in print or on licensed commercial television program will be allowed press access, thereby cutting out anyone who is an online-only news outlet.

Before Orr and the members of the Republican caucus establish a Pravda style news memorandum, they might want to consider the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School Centennial Report entitled “Post- Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”

The study states, “Rather than try to list or define the elements that separate hard news from the fluff, we have simply adopted Lord Northcliffe’s famous litmus test: ‘News is something someone somewhere doesn’t want printed. Everything else is advertising.’”

(See study here.)

Northcliffe (born July 15, 1865,near Dublin, Ireland—died August 14, 1922, London, England) was one of the most successful newspaper publishers in the history of the British press and a founder of popular modern journalism,” according to britannica.com.

It would appear that centuries earlier, Northcliffe knew what Orr, Hubbard and Marsh have discovered, but want to muzzle.

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But, as the Columbia report suggests, journalism matters, and good journalism has always been subsidized.

The Founding Fathers believed that in a free Republic, journalism should be an unabridged force. However, wherever freedom of the press—to investigate and expose the government—is infringed upon, only the appearance of freedom will remain.

Freedom of speech, freedom of religion and all other freedoms are soon lost, when the press is not allowed to do its job without fear of government reprisal.

It would appear, that many in the State’s Republican super majority would deny what the Republic’s founders thought so essential to liberty.

But, Orr will write rules saying reporters’ articles must appear in print or on licensed commercial television to be granted access to the State House press facilities. This, regardless of the fact that today more people who want real information about their government, rely on a printer two feet away or a smart phone in their hand, rather than what rolls off a mechanical press 50 miles away.

But, that is the point. The State’s Republican super majority’s leadership wants the people of the State to remain ignorant of their devices. Such is always the case with would be despots.

They point their finger North at Washington DC, while sacking Montgomery in the South in the name of conservative values. There is nothing conservative about infringing on the right of a free press, or denying the public’s right to know.

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The Columbia report acknowledges that, “Not all journalism matters, of course. Much of what is produced today is simply entertainment or diversion.”

But, as they also point out, “hard news,” “accountability journalism” or “the iron core of news,” matters greatly in a free and open society.

It is startling that many Republican lawmakers don’t agree with that simple truth.

Written By

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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