In a February 24th online article titled “On the Capitol: Blogosphere goes wild after Rep. Kleefisch caught on video,” Wisconsin State Journal reporters Mary Spicuzza and Clay Barbour take the unwashed masses to task for their outraged reaction to a video showing GOP Rep. Joel Kleefisch casting votes for Assembly colleagues who were too busy elsewhere to vote for themselves. The outrage is silly, Spicuzza and Barbour assure us, because this kind of “absentee voting” happens all of the time. So it’s no big deal. In support of this assertion they quote Democratic Assemblyman Brett Hulsey, who obligingly says absentee voting happens all the time, so it’s no big deal. If only the unwashed masses were as familiar with Assembly behavior as professional reporters who observe it every day, they too, would see that it happens all the time, so it’s no big deal.
The non sequitur operating here is obvious. Many observers of the WI Assembly—among them Arthur Kohl-Riggs, the person who took the video—are aware that absentee voting and other questionable behavior, ranging from prohibited cell phone use to public drunkenness, happens all of the time on the Assembly floor, but have not come to the conclusion that it is no big deal. Rather, they have decided that the frequently loutish behavior of legislators, well known but never commented on by the official press, is interesting and deserves to be reported, all the more so because it happens all the time. If the professional press cannot see the hypocrisy of law-and-order Republicans like Kleefisch engaging in behavior that in any other context would be considered voter fraud, that does not mean that less irony-impaired observers should ignore it.
Spicuzza and Barbour’s attack on the “blogosphere gone wild” amounts to a self-serving defense of their own failure to report on something that they see every day and that the public is evidently interested in learning about. But this is not the worst of it. Spicuzza and Barbour have some nasty things to say about the videographer himself, describing him as a “stalker” of Kleefisch, and accusing him—falsely—of filming from the Assembly gallery, in violation of an unwritten Assembly rule.
Although they never mention him by name, Spicuzza and Barbour know Arthur Kohl-Riggs. They have a history. And in light of this history Spicuzza and Barbour’s digs at Kohl-Riggs appear not just nasty, but vindictive.
Mary Spicuzza is secretary of the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association (WCCA), a quasi-official organization run out of the press room in the Capitol by representatives of “professional” news organizations, including reporters from the Wisconsin State Journal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Associated Press. The core of the WCCA is a seven member board, headed by president Jason Stein (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) and vice president Scott Bauer (Associated Press). The WCCA, under power delegated to it by the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization (JCLO), issues credentials that give journalists access to press areas on the floor of the Assembly and Senate. Under the prevailing interpretation of legislative rules, only journalists working in these designated press areas are allowed to film in legislative chambers. Thus the WCCA has a great deal of control over the ability of the public to observe legislators at work, and exclusive control at the increasingly frequent times when the public galleries are closed.
Delegating the issuing of press credentials to the press itself could be an effective way of protecting the credentialing process from political manipulation, and this might well have been the original intent of the WCCA. In practice, however, the WCCA is not independent at all; the delegation of credentialing power to the WCCA has effectively turned the press into an enforcement arm of the legislature. Whether as a result of some bureaucratic Stockholm syndrome or from a servile concept of their role as professional journalists, WCCA members have ceded a great deal of their own independence to the Legislature, and view it as their duty to punish reporters who violate rules of behavior set by the legislature. The problem with this is that the Legislature has taken an extreme position regarding its right to set rules within legislative chambers, most famously in the case of the collective bargaining bill, in which the legislature asserted an immunity from open meetings law.
Legislative leaders also have asserted expansive rights to control the press and the public in legislative chambers. These rights include dictating the angles from which reporters may film in legislative chambers, banning the use of cameras in public galleries, and banning the public from legislative chambers altogether. Most of these rules are not written, but are made up on the spot by the presiding officers of the legislature under broad powers they assert under their right to “preserve decorum.” Thus when the WCCA revokes or denies press credentials for violations of legislative rules it is not enforcing an established code of conduct, but the whim of legislative leaders. Moreover, as a condition of granting a press credential the WCCA now requires reporters to sign a pledge stating, in part, that they “…will not become engaged or assist, directly or indirectly, in any lobbying, promotion, advertising, or publicity activity intended to influence legislation or any other action of the Legislature.” The questions this oath raises about the function and value of professional journalism are subjects for another time. The important point here is that he WCCA interprets challenging legislative edicts affecting the ability of reporters to cover events in the Legislature as “lobbying,” and this forbids its members from pressing for greater access.
Even without the prohibition on “lobbying” it would be difficult for the WCCA to resist the legislative interference with the press. Most WCCA members, and certainly all of its board of directors, view their access to the floors of legislative chambers not as a right, but as a privilege. Emails between WCCA members reveal that they live in fear that this privilege will be taken away from them if they misbehave. One of the “misbehaviors” they most fear is filming in or from the public gallery of the Assembly. In exchange for privileged access to the floors of the legislative chambers, the WCCA has voluntarily relinquished its right to film events happening in the gallery, even when those events are, by any reasonable standard, newsworthy.
Enter Arthur Kohl-Riggs. Arthur is a young videographer who probably has done more to visually document the Wisconsin uprising than anyone, and certainly more than any of the established press. Arthur is not a “professional” reporter. He makes no claim to objectivity. He is a protestor, and is documenting events as an actor in them, not as an unbiased observer. He is, in short, producing exactly the kind of first person records that historians most eagerly seek; historians generally cite newspaper articles only when nothing better is available. We don’t learn about the Civil War by reading contemporary New York Times articles about it.
In September of last year Arthur began filming from press areas of the Assembly and Senate, under a press pass issued to WTDY radio for talk show host Sly Sylvester. Conflict with the WCCA started almost immediately. This conflict centered around two incidents in which Arthur was observed filming in the public gallery of the Assembly, in violation of the rules d’jour of Assembly leaders. These incidents happened on September 13th and October 20th. Arthur was arrested the second time and treated aggressively by police, who pushed him to the ground in a stairwell and then charged him with resisting arrest for being on the ground. Arthur and several witnesses captured the incident on video.
There are two important aspects of these arrests that need to be pointed out.
First, despite the claims of Assembly leaders and the concurrence of the WCCA, it is not at all clear that the ban on cameras has any valid statutory basis or even is Constitutional. Indeed, state statutes specify that the public must be allowed to film unless the filming is disruptive. Statutes do not give legislators the right to ban cameras in order to protect themselves from embarrassment. All of the dozens of tickets for disorderly conduct and other violations of administrative code that have been issued to citizens for filming in the Assembly gallery over the past six months have been dismissed by the courts. Court challenges to the camera ban are planned. Perhaps sensing that they are on shaky legal ground, Capitol police recently have stopped writing tickets for filming in favor of simply forcing the offending photographers to leave the gallery.
Second, Arthur was not arrested for simply filming. He was arresting as part of his coverage of police arresting other people. In other words, he was arrested for reporting news that the WCCA, in its eagerness to retain privileged access the Assembly floor, has surrendered its right to cover– an unambiguous case of self-censorship. Arthur recently asked Spicuzza and Barbour to explain their near complete silence on arrests in the gallery and the issue of whether citizens have a right to film their representatives at work. Their response was these topics are really not very interesting to people other than the protestors. One might think that a reporter, seeing half a dozen police descending on and arresting someone, for any reason, would at least sympathize with Arthur’s response, which was to jump up, remove his press pass, and head up to the gallery to document what was happening. But Spicuzza and Barbour showed no such sympathy. Perhaps, by pretending that nothing newsworthy ever happens in the gallery, Spicuzza and Barbour can also pretend that their choice not to report on events in the gallery is voluntary, and not compelled by a servile relationship to power that compromises their credibility as independent journalists.
Arthur’s filming in the gallery on October 20th did provoke a response from the WCCA, however. At 3:28 pm Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel, sent an email to WCCA president Jason Stein (Journal Sentinel), vice president Scott Bauer (AP) and Todd Richmond (AP), notifying them that Arthur was filming in the Assembly gallery. This precipitated a flurry of emails between WCCA board members (obediently cc’d to legislative officials) and a decision to revoke the press credentials of both Arthur and Sly.
Bauer and Richmond’s role in this exchange is particularly interesting. While Stein strives to stay above the fray, the AP reporters cannot hide their contempt for Arthur, and in the process reveal a great deal about their view of the press. Bauer is impatient with Stein’s insistence that “process is important” and that the revocation of Arthur’s credential be done in an orderly way. Bauer writes: “[Arthur] shows no respect for process and is putting the entire statewide media’s access to the chamber in jeopardy. We need to act quickly to show some self respect and dignity. The vote is to revoke. Does anyone want to seriously argue otherwise?”
Richmond concurs: “I agree with Scott that Arthur, and, by extension, Sly, should have his credential revoked. I’m not sure if we need to be that formal about it. We all know the way the vote is going to go.”
None of the other WCCA members involved in the discussion were as strident as Bauer, whose antipathy to Arthur dates back to September and has as much to do with Arthur’s choice of clothing as with his alleged violations of Assembly rules. Spicuzza’s known role in the process was to set a meeting time where the issue could be addressed. But none of the WCCA members objected to Bauer’s characterization of Arthur, much less came to Arthur’s defense. True to Richmond’s prediction, the WCCA board voted 7-0 to revoke Arthur and Sly’s credential.
Let’s consider exactly what Bauer was saying, and to which the other WCCA members tacitly agreed. Bauer is concerned that Arthur’s violation of an unwritten rule against filming in the Assembly gallery will lead the Legislature to retaliate against the press as a whole, and to ban all of them from chambers. Bauer’s response to this threat is to place all of the blame on Arthur. Bauer clearly is not one to mince words, yet there is not a hint of criticism of the Legislature, nor any suggestion that banning the press would not be an entirely legitimate exercise of legislative power, in his reaction to the threat he perceives. Bauer’s outspoken contempt for Arthur contrasts unpleasantly with his evident awe of power.
In light of their obsequious relationship to the Legislature, it is not surprising that the Capitol press tread lightly around the legislators. The press has, through its own self imposed rules, stripped itself of any defense against the retaliation it fears. This, perhaps, is the real reason why the Capitol press have neglected to report on absentee voting and other unseemly behavior by legislators. When Arthur, no longer bound by WCCA rules, chose to violate this code of silence, the press may well have feared that it would be punished. Spicuzza and Barbour’s piece seems designed to send the legislators a message: Please don’t blame us for what Arthur does. He’s a bad boy, but we promise to behave.
Spicuzza, Barbour, and other members of the Capitol press corps should use this incident to reflect on whether the bargain they have made in order to retain privileged access to the legislature is worth the price. Perhaps, if they were expelled from the chambers and forced to cover the legislature from the outside, Capitol reporters might not feel inclined to be apologists for the misdeeds of the legislators.
Since this article was published, all charges against Arthur Kohl-Riggs have been dismissed, as have all charges against others arrested for filming in the Assembly and Senate galleries.
In December, 2012, the WCCA disbanded. It will be replaced by a five member panel composed of representatives of traditional media, who will advise the Legislature on the issuance of press credentials.