The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republican leadership bars journalists from Iowa Senate floor, worrying press advocates

The Iowa Senate holds a special session to vote on congressional and legislative redistricting maps on Oct. 5, 2021, in Des Moines. (Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register via AP)

When Iowa’s 2022 legislative session commences Monday, there will be a notable absence on the floor of the state Senate: reporters.

Republican leaders in the state Senate told journalists last week they will no longer be allowed to work on the chamber floor, a change that breaks with a more than 140-year tradition in the Iowa Capitol. The move raised concerns among free press and freedom of information advocates who said it is a blow to transparency and open government that makes it harder for the public to understand, let alone scrutinize, elected officials.

The new rule denies reporters access to the press benches near senators’ desks, a proximity current and former statehouse reporters told The Washington Post is crucial for the most accurate and nuanced coverage. The position allows reporters to see and hear everything clearly on the Senate floor and to get real-time answers and clarifications during debates.

Beginning this session, reporters will be seated in a public upper-level gallery.

“When you take journalists and restrict their access and then you couple that with changes that have occurred in the past couple of years with procedures in Iowa, it makes it that much harder for the public to know what’s going on,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a government transparency watchdog.

In an email to statehouse reporters obtained by The Washington Post, Senate Republican spokesperson Caleb Hunter said the new rule arose from the “evolving nature and definition of ‘media.' ”

“As nontraditional media outlets proliferate, it creates an increasingly difficult scenario for the Senate, as a governmental entity, to define the criteria of a media outlet,” the email said. Hunter did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

To critics of the new rule, including members of the Iowa Capitol Press Association and Democrats in the state Senate, the change is little more than a thinly veiled retaliation against news outlets for unflattering coverage of the Republican-controlled legislature. Longtime statehouse reporters also called the justification specious and said there are no instances of nontraditional media causing disruptions.

“Keeping reporters out doesn’t make reporters more accurate or fair. [Senators] would be better off letting those folks in and getting to know them,” said Kathie Obradovich, editor in chief of the Iowa Capital Dispatch, who also serves as vice president of the Iowa Capitol Press Association (ICPA). She called the move “discouraging” and unprovoked.

Obradovich noted that the Iowa House, the judiciary and the governor’s office have all managed to define criteria for media outlets and said the Iowa Senate will have to do so eventually, whenever it next holds news conferences that require credentialing.

Unlike the Washington press corps covering Congress and the White House, the media space at the Iowa Capitol is allocated by the party that has control of the Iowa House and Iowa Senate; both chambers of the statehouse and the governor’s office are controlled by Republicans.

The change in access comes as government accountability and media watchdogs raise the alarm about the effects of dwindling statehouse coverage across the United States as larger swaths of the country become local news deserts.

A 2014 study of statehouse press corps by the Pew Research Center found less than half of all reporters covering state capitals across the United States did so full time, with states like South Dakota (at the time of the study) having as few as two reporters dedicated to covering local lawmakers. Notably, the study found that roughly 16 percent of reporters working in statehouses worked for nontraditional outlets.

What Happens to Democracy When Local Journalism Dries Up?

Statehouse coverage in Iowa had been disrupted since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, including a suspension of the spring 2020 session. Obradovich said reporters had worked remotely, covering sessions via live stream or sitting in the upper-deck gallery to allow for social distancing on the chamber floor.

“Our experience covering the legislature from the galleries or remotely was not ideal: We didn’t get to know the freshmen [lawmakers], the rapport wasn’t there, and it was also difficult to get ahold of somebody if you need clarification,” Obradovich said. “It’s a poorer report that Iowans are getting when we don’t have that kind of access to lawmakers.”

William Petroski, who covered the Iowa state politics for nearly 40 years for the Des Moines Register before retiring in 2019, called the partisan decision “terrible for the public and terrible for readers.”

Under the old rules that let reporters work from the chamber floor, reporters and lawmakers could quickly hold one another accountable, Petroski said.

“You could whisper someone a question; the number one thing is just clarifying what is going on,” he said. “I would routinely get the attention of senators and say, ‘Hey, did you really do this? Does this bill really say that?' You avoid a lot of mistakes, a lot of misunderstandings. It’s not a gotcha situation, but it’s better for the flow of information.”

Petroski noted that not all members of the Iowa Senate, including those in the Republican majority, are anti-press, but said there are a handful who seem intent on pushing anti-democratic decisions forward.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls (D) said that Senate Democrats oppose the change and called the move hypocritical of Republican lawmakers.

“This is the party that spent all of last year railing about the First Amendment, protecting the freedom of speech, complaining about censorship,” Wahls said. He said his Republican counterparts did not alert the minority to the change and that he learned of it incidentally after press corps members were told of the new rule during a pre-session meeting last week.

Wahls said senate Democrats will introduce a measure to change the rule, but admitted it will be an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, Evans, of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the recent change to statehouse coverage in the Senate is a harbinger for the eroding transparency across state government.

In December, three groups including Evans’s and Obradovich’s news outlets, sued Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) for repeatedly violating the state’s freedom of information laws by “stonewalling” requests.

Evans said the issue of transparency becomes even more urgent when a single party controls both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, because it becomes easier to set aside rules of procedure that govern the legislative process. Already, he said, state Republicans have shortened the window of time required for subcommittees to post notice of a meeting — the very meetings members of the public or news media may want to speak at or attend.

Obradovich agreed, noting the change is a setback for the state’s long history of openness to the press. After the rule change, she and others ICPA members pored over House and Senate journals dating back to the 1880s.

“Every year on the first day of session, there’s a journal entry saying the press had been seated in the press bench. Sometimes there’s even a list of names of press that’s been credentialed to be there,” she said. “There’s well over a century of tradition they’re throwing out.”

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