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Why can’t The Uptake get a Capitol press office?

The Rochester Post-Bulletin and Twin Cities Public Television raised concerns about citizen-journalism site The Uptake’s quest for state Capitol press space.

When Politics in Minnesota’s Sarah Janecek reported March 26 that the Rochester Post-Bulletin and Twin Cities Public Television raised concerns about citizen journalism site The Uptake’s quest for state Capitol press space, the latest media access battle became very public.

The Uptake — whose founders have worked in Democratic Party and progressive politics — is best known for pumping out hours of unedited political video. The site earned national praise for its indefatigable U.S. Senate recount coverage.

But to Post-Bulletin local news editor Mike Dougherty, the Uptake represented the barbarians inside the gate … or, at least, the warren of offices constituting the basement press area. The Uptake would slide into vacant space in a room where the Rochester paper and KARE-TV already reside. In a letter to the state Department of Administration, which leases the space, Dougherty wrote:

My concern is that they are not a nonpartisan news site, which compromises the efforts of all the media in that complex that have built their reputations over time.

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Including The Uptake in this area with access to information about what many of the news organizations are working on with no guarantee someone else’s work won’t appear on their site or be Tweeted via Twitter …

[T]he media we represent are very different than The Uptake and we hope you will address our concerns by not allowing them to lease space in our current office or within the current press corps complex. We believe our concerns are shared by other news media organizations.

After receiving the letter, Administration canceled The Uptake’s lease, just a day after it was signed. That triggered a 30-day notice requirement, meaning Uptake video equipment already housed in the press room could be evicted April 26 if the two sides can’t agree.

Once again, the scab was ripped off the old-versus-new media debate, though the narrative isn’t that simple. Many mainstream reporters I spoke with sounded slightly nauseous about the infighting; several cited freedom of the press, and made it clear they had no problems with the Uptake getting space. (On the flip, one new media reporter has qualms about The Uptake’s intern training.)

Since the PIM story ran, those who’ve complained have either backpedaled, soft-pedaled, or dummied up. But the press scrum opened the door to a full review of the lease-granting policy, and no one knows what the result will be. Even incumbents are a bit nervous about keeping what they have. Admin spokesman Jim Schwartz says there’s no deadline, and the matter could remain unresolved past the legislature’s May adjournment.

The vacancy
Ironically, the department that scuttled the lease initially suggested The Uptake take the space.

Mainstream media cutbacks created the vacancy. Last year, Fargo-based Forum Communications laid off one of its two Capitol reporters, relinquishing the $28-a-square-foot office it split with KARE. This session, the Post-Bulletin took half of what Forum left behind, but the rest remained unused.

At the time, the vacant space seemed like a nifty solution to a problem. In 2009, The Uptake got its toehold in the press room: a hallway video cabinet where an Associated Press file cabinet once stood.

The main Capitol press room layout. The larger orange square is the disputed space.
The main Capitol press room layout. The larger orange square is the disputed space.

Uptake executive producer Mike McIntee says the ultimate goal is to tap into a “clean” graphics-free Capitol feed that comes through the press room near the potential office.

TPT political reporter Mary Lahammer insists that her organization never opposed The Uptake’s office move. However, she says Uptake workers sometimes camped in the hallway, creating logistical problems in the already-tight space. Says Uptake executive director Jason Barnett, “So when the office space opened up, we thought this would solve the [hallway] problem, but instead, it created more.”

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Ideology: a non-factor?
Unlike the Post-Bulletin, KARE is enthusiastic about the Uptake as a co-tenant. In a letter to Admin, station news director Tom Lindner singled out McIntee for praise, and crystallized the equal-access argument:

KARE 11 has no objections to The UpTake leasing the space. I’ve known Mike McIntee for more than 30 years. I know him to be an honorable man of his word.

I find it ironic that in one of the most publicly accessible buildings in our state, some members of the media are concerned about giving access to The UpTake in the press area.

I do not want to be responsible for defining who can and cannot be considered the working press. … If The UpTake has the money to pay the lease, why not let them? KARE 11 will share the space with them without objection.

The office in question is one of the few shared between organizations, but KARE’s seen worse; at a press corps meeting last week, Channel 11 photojournalist Aethan Hart noted his station once shared quarters with Channel 9.

Although The Uptake is credentialed by the state House and Senate, the Post-Bulletin regards the group’s press-room presence as illegitimate. Or at least it did. Since the controversy broke, the paper’s managing editor, Jay Furst, has blogged about “raising legitimate questions” about the inclusion of ideological journalists in workspace. When we talked, he emphasized engaging the debate rather than settling it, and says he’ll accept Admin’s decision.

Re-read Dougherty’s letter, I replied: Your paper is on record saying not only that the Uptake shouldn’t share an office with you, it should be kicked out of the press warrens entirely.

Furst, who says he “glanced” at Dougherty’s communication before it was sent, replied, “I can live with that letter completely.” Still, he added, “I probably would’ve worded it in a different way.”

Although some Democrats see crypto-Republican sympathies at work in the objections, the fear seems more that partisan veterans of any stripe can’t become journalists independent of politicians and parties.

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As WCCO-TV’s Pat Kessler puts it, “Is an anti-Republican blogger going to get space down here, or an anti-Democratic tracker? We’re going to have to draw the line at some point.”

Kessler is clear The Uptake hasn’t crossed it. “I’ve watched them here, and they’ve been very dedicated, completely professional. I’m told they have a progressive, liberal lean, but I haven’t seen it. If the purpose of this is to provide raw feeds, then does that matter?”

Besides, Kessler notes, asking government to enforce journalistic principles seems odd. “Many years ago, [then-Gov.] Jesse Ventura said he would not do interviews until you can produce for me a code of ethics. So I sent him the First Amendment and the Ten Commandments.”

Although The Uptake’s staff isn’t shy about past political service, no staffer works on campaigns, and a glance at the site’s home page shows an eclectic mix of unedited political event footage: Tea Party rallies, counter-demonstrations, presidential and gubernatorial press conferences, police chief interviews. Barnett figures this is more than 90 percent of what The Uptake produces.

Several organizations represented in the basement embed such footage on their websites; MinnPost does as well.

Most Uptake donations come from small donors, Barnett says, though two foundations currently kick in funds: the Harnisch Foundation (also a MinnPost supporter) and the Instructional Telecommunications Foundation.

This hardly fits Furst’s accusation that The Uptake is an “advocacy organization” or one “generally perceived as more political than journalistic in nature.” Of course the staffers lean left (McIntee hosts a show on liberal station KTNF), and some of their reports (and user comments) please Dems and anger Republicans. So do Lori Sturdevant’s Strib columns, and the editorial writer has worked in the Capitol basement for years, albeit in a different press area.

Notes McIntee, “We don’t endorse candidates, like a lot of newspapers in that room do. We don’t lobby at the Capitol [for taxpayer money], like some media outlets do.”

Whose ideological beef?
At least give the Post-Bulletin credit for voicing what others have publicly backed away from.

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I asked Furst if TPT (via Lahammer), and Forum (via Capitol reporter Don Davis), were the “other news organizations” with the “partisan” concerns Dougherty’s letter referenced. “I can confirm that,” he said.

Davis, who answered his phone during a Wednesday committee meeting, told me he “wasn’t in a position to talk” and abruptly ended the conversation. He sent an apologetic email Thursday, but declined to answer questions.

Other reporters heard Lahammer say she was taking her complaints to Administration. She says she contacted Jim Rhodes, the former Republican state representative from St. Louis Park who is now the department’s legislative director. “I’ve known him my whole life; he’s a nice, easygoing guy,” Lahammer notes. “It was an informal ‘what’s the deal?’”

Lahammer, who has publicly supported the new media in previous Capitol fights, says the conversation did not involve The Uptake’s ideology or partisanship; Rhodes declined to comment.

However, Lahammer’s boss, Brendan Henehan, acknowledges The Uptake’s leanings were an issue. “What Mary did say to me is, at various points, she had concerns about some of the people with partisan background working for the Uptake.”

Schwartz says that after the Capitol press corps (who call themselves the Jackals, after a Ventura epithet) met with Uptake leaders, Lahammer called the department to say her objections had been resolved.

As for TPT, Henehan says “We don’t have a position on whether it’s appropriate” for the Uptake to be in the press space.

McIntee says The Uptake has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the complaints and how the department decided to cancel the lease. Regarding the new policy, the state has invited the Uptake to provide “input” as a “stakeholder.”

The Department of Administration has offered to let The Uptake return to their original hallway-space lease; The Uptake is holding out for the office they feel they qualify for.

Constitutionally confident
Barnett is convinced The Uptake will ultimately get its space. “We’re going to come out of this better than before, just like after anytime someone attacks us,” he says. “This is about freedom of the press. There’s no way they can kick us out.”

It doesn’t hurt that The Uptake’s lawyer is David Lillehaug, the former Minnesota U.S. Attorney who was part of Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s winning recount team. While that linkage won’t quiet the partisanship murmurs, Barnett says Constitutional law is on The Uptake’s side; the state simply can’t discriminate based on real or perceived ideology. Schwartz agrees, adding Administration’s standards — which have never been examined since taking over management from the Senate — will be platform-neutral (print, broadcast, web) as well.

A possible model might be found in the state Senate, whose credentialing rules are breathtakingly simple: they only specify “those news agencies that regularly cover the legislature.”

Of course, it’s up to the Secretary of the Senate to determine a “news agency” and “regularly” — some new-media reporters say they’ve received access only through indefatigability. Still, the “regularity” and “news agency” standard likely separates The Uptake from the conservative organs that Furst and others compare them to, Power Line and Minnesota Democrats Exposed.

Not necessarily professionals, but professionalism
That’s not to say there aren’t less-than-Constitutional issues here.

Several reporters who support The Uptake’s right to the press room space are concerned about the organization’s laissez-faire attitude toward interns and volunteers.

This session, an Uptake intern who works at the Capitol, Erin Maye, tweeted that she thought House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher would “make a great governor.” In another tweet, Maye wrote that when editing video “I can make people say things they may not have said … muhahahha.”

Marty Owings, a new-media reporter who covers the legislature for community station KFAI-FM, told the Jackals that interns needed better training before groups like The Uptake threw them into the Capitol. It was an indication that, access aside, concerns transcended old-versus-new, or even left-versus-right.

At the same meeting, Kessler recalls Barnett saying he “had no right to restrict the [political] rights of his employees.”

Kessler says he replied, “Yes, you do.”

Later, McIntee clarified, “I don’t believe anybody’s right to be a citizen should be abridged by being a journalist. There’s a difference between a staffer and a volunteer. I’m not going to ask a volunteer to give away their rights as a citizen.”

However, Barnett says that had Maye “been a full-time employee, we would have fired her” over the editing tweet. “We know she was kidding around, but it’s not funny, given what we do,” he says. “We told her not to delete it, even though we know certain blogs are going to find out and hit really hard. Interns need to learn.”

Although Maye, just off a stint with Al Franken’s campaign, tweeted from a personal account, McIntee explains, “Erin had never used Twitter. We signed her up and said, that’s what we do. What doesn’t get reported is she put out an apology, too.”

McIntee says he is not concerned about the Kelliher tweet, regarding Maye’s opinion as an example of transparency. “Would you rather a reporter think that and not tell you what they’re really thinking?” he asked.

Building trust
Even though the Constitution doesn’t demand it, McIntee and Barnett acknowledge they need to build trust with fellow journalists working in close quarters.  “We want to be good neighbors,” Barnett says. “If there’s anything Mike and I have done wrong, it’s that we haven’t developed relationships [in the press room] to the level we need. We will do that.”

McIntee says he would only put credentialed reporters in the basement space, rather than a revolving door of volunteers. “We are only going to put our best foot forward. Am I going to request we give other people privacy on the phone? Damn right I am.”

(Adds Barnett, “I don’t want to give out that many keys.”)

And let’s not give the worst fears too much credence. Maye’s shaky social networking is closest thing supporting Dougherty’s evidence-free assertion that The Uptake would, in effect, steal a competitor’s work or ruin the scoop via Twitter. Not one of the eight Capitol journalists I talked to could recall a single case of the Uptake actually doing anything unethical in the 13 months the organization has been credentialed at the Capitol. “Never,” Kessler states.

And, a couple of reporters noted, the press warrens were hardly a pilfer-free zone before citizen journalists arrived; one Capitol vet slyly recalled an excursion through a competitor’s trash can.

The truth is, while MPR, AP and the Strib have relatively large offices, most Capitol reporters work on top of each other and privacy expectations are very, very low. “If you have something hot, you find somewhere else to work on it,” one says.

Fundamentally, the press room is about access, being close to the action. Legislators trolling for coverage often stage impromptu press conferences or drop off releases.

DFL partisans have noted there was no partisan eruption when ex-lobbyist and open Republican Janecek secured a big new press-room space for Dolan Media. There are a few differences: Dolan already had space, and its Capitol reporters — whose ideologies, if anything, are the opposite of Janecek’s — have been in the business for awhile. They are, more or less, already in the Capitol club.

The Uptake isn’t, and so far, that’s been a good thing for democracy. As McIntee notes, “Who else sent a camera to [show] the Independence Party convention?”

In fact, The Uptake’s future business prospects largely rest on taking such raw information and adding value to it, such as keyword tagging and other archive-retrieval aids. Among those who might pay for such a service: the media.

Says McIntee, “I gotta tell you, I look at the press, yes, as competition, but I also look at them as customers, in terms of getting more of our video out, and perhaps making something down the road attractive and worth paying for. Why would I want to piss off my customers?”

While The Uptake will likely fill the vacancy, the truth is, they’re probably lousy precedent setters. The next organization that leverages the Constitution could be far more upsetting to the Capitol’s folkways — more nakedly partisan, perhaps, or jerkier. Just like journalists were when the First Amendment was written.