Thursday, October 2, 2014

Off Topic: Controlling access

I have read that a reporter in Wisconsin is complaining that a prominent political figure's people kept the media penned in a certain area during a political visit and did their best to keep reporters from talking to people who attended.

That's nothing new. It's happened here in Huntington during big shots' political visits. It even happened at the Greenbrier when an older reporter of ours covered the return of the Iranian hostages more than 30 years ago. He got tired of the restrictions that kept reporters away from everyone else, so he hid his press pass. With no outward indications he was a reporter, he was able to walk up to a local guy who had been a hostage in the embassy and got the interview he needed.

When I covered presidential visits and such, I tried my best to stay out of the press pen and walk among regular folks. Republican or Democrat, a candidate's handlers want to control access. I made the mistake of going into the pen one time thinking I would get a quick question to a candidate. I was wrong. He avoided us so he could work the crowd. Never again. Regular reporters could be part of the press pool. I wanted to mingle among the crowd. Those interviews usually were more important than what the candidate said anyway.

A former colleague covered a presidential visit to Charleston, W.Va., one day. She tried leaving the press pen, and a presidential press person told her she needed to be back there with her media peers. I don't remember if my colleague heeded that directive or ignored it.

On the national level, everything is so scripted. The likelihood that a gaffe will haunt a candidate forever is too great, so you restrict access and reduce the chances an off-the-cuff remark will end up in your opponent's commercials. It's like I used to tell younger reporters when they couldn't understand why a company would not let retail-level people talk with us. A company that spends millions of dollars on creating an image is not going to let a minimum-wage convenience store cashier destroy it with one careless comment, I would tell them.

Okay. Journalism lesson over. Back to river stuff.