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So, should I help the government?

Last year, The Uptake had session-long Minnesota State Senate floor passes. This session, it doesn’t.
What changed?

Last year, The Uptake had session-long Minnesota State Senate floor passes. This session, it doesn’t.

What changed? The Republicans took over.

Even though the citizen journalism site webcasts hours of live political video, it has DFL roots and frequently, a left-leaning point of view. Last year, a handful of mainstream journalists raised questions about The Uptake renting Capitol press room office space. (Thursday, The Uptake officially got the space.)

Republicans were only too happy to pile on. A Republican blog, Minnesota Democrats Exposed, announced plans to apply for credentials to protest “the willingness to allow an outright partisan group into the press area.”

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Although MDE founder Michael Brodkorb had left the site by then, he has attacked The Uptake for “journalistic malpractice” — and is now Senate Republican communications director and executive assistant to Majority Leader Amy Koch. (Brodkorb is also deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party.)

While credentials aren’t needed for Capitol press conferences, floor passes are about access. Conversations are only permitted before or after a day’s session, but the immediacy of interviews before lawmakers scatter is as valuable, as is the candor that occasionally results before marching orders are received.

It’s not the be-all of reportage: Senate Sgt-at-Arms Sven Lindquist says press seats on the cramped floor are frequently unoccupied, except during big votes. Still, it’s a tool for the journalistic toolbox.

Government shouldn’t be in the business of judging speech, but before I could prepare another column defending The Uptake, I got a call from Brodkorb with an unexpected offer:

Would I serve on a working group re-examining the Senate’s credentialing rules?

Brodkorb says his offer is sincere, and represents new transparency in shaping the policy. His plan is to have Senate Republican and DFL staffers, plus me and right-blogger Mitch Berg, chew through the issues and recommend durable standards to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

I was apparently picked to add a lefty, but also one with experience in the “old” and “new” media. There were no conditions on my involvement — I could write what I wanted at any time.

Talk about your tough spots. One of my goals is to help improve public policy, but journalists typically shy away from direct involvement with those they cover. For example, the state Capitol press corps doesn’t want to credential members, even though that happens in some states and at the U.S. Capitol.

The SPJ ethics code states: “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

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But there’s also this: “[R]ecognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.”

Is part of the special obligation directly trying to change things for the better?

I was pretty sure my bosses would take me off the hook and nix the idea. They didn’t. Editor Joel Kramer said journalism organizations serve on government working groups all the time, though it’s usually executives, not reporters. Still, he didn’t see a problem with being on an advisory group as long as there were no conditions.

I told Brodkorb that if I was to serve, my principles would be maximizing access via objective standards that forbid government review of speech (known in the legal world as “content-based regulation”).

The current Senate rules are objective, but simultaneously vague and over-specific.

“Permanent space” on the Senate floor and gallery is granted to “news agencies that regularly cover the legislature.” There’s no definition of what “regularly” means — but the list is piercingly specific when it comes to defining news agencies: AP, the Pioneer Press, the St. Paul Legal Ledger, Star Tribune, Duluth News Tribune, (Fargo) Forum, Rochester Post Bulletin, St. Cloud Times, WCCO radio, KSTP radio, Minnesota Public Radio and Minnesota News Network.

See the problems? KSTP radio, which is now all-sports, is guaranteed a spot; none of the TV stations are — and they all have Capitol correspondents. Meanwhile, attentive newcomers like The Uptake, or Marty Owings of Minnesota Capitol News, aren’t listed, either.

How did The Uptake get permanent floor passes last year? Like the TV stations, in the breech. But such discretion makes it all too possible for partisans to be partisan.

In a column earlier this year, Berg wrote that the GOP-controlled Senate had denied credentials to “all partisan news outlets.” (Again, the rules don’t make any mention of partisanship.) To me, that standard would include Dan “Ox” Ochsner, a talk show host on conservative St. Cloud station KNSI-AM.

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Ochsner told me Wednesday he did get a permanent floor pass. “I pinned [new Senate President] Michelle Fischbach down on the air at 2 a.m. on Election Night.”

Ochsner, who was president of the Minnesota Associated Press Broadcasters before going ideological, had his permanent floor pass taken away in recent years when the DFL controlled the Senate. Former Senate communications director Gary Hill says Ochsner was rejected along with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, an African-American paper, and Checks and Balances, a DFL-affiliated website.

The grounds? None covered the legislature “regularly,” Hill says.

Ochsner says he was at the legislature five to seven times a year, and the fact that he ran against Tarryl Clark in a 2005 special election probably didn’t help. (Clark won and became assistant Senate Majority Leader.)

Sgt-at-arms Lindquist says the power to review and grant credentials used to be handled by himself and Senate Secretary Patrick Flahaven. But in recent years, Lindquist says the power moved “elsewhere” — to the majority leader’s office, which is, by definition, partisan.

While The Uptake disputes the partisan label, Ochsner embraces it. So it’s hard to deny the former a credential based on the perceived content of their speech. Brodkorb disagrees; he doesn’t consider KNSI partisan (it’s the Central Minnesota home of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Jason Lewis and Michael Savage). Instead, he likens The Uptake to Minnesota Democrats Exposed.

Frankly, I think The Uptake has pretty good grounds for a First Amendment lawsuit. This should make for a fun working group discussion.

Should I join the group, it isn’t hard to see the minefields. Theoretically, I’d help shape the rules affecting people I cover. The credentialed incumbents might be pissed (or grateful) if insurgents join (or are excluded from) their ranks. There’d be a doppelganger dynamic for the new media folks. (By the way, Brodkorb says MinnPost would’ve received floor passes had we applied.)

There’s the risk that Brodkorb is using me as a fig leaf for the Senate’s partisan decisions. And there’s also the possibility of fomenting bad rules: instead of getting new voices and perspectives into the mix, enabling thinly veiled party hacks who will make it harder for independent journalists to do their jobs.

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Maybe it would be better to have a seat in the front row, not at the table.

As of now, I’m planning to take a leap of faith. I think I can keep my wits, principles, and independence about me and be a forceful advocate for openness. A direct role makes it easier to shed light on the process, allowing you to check my actions and more importantly, the politicians’ work. I will certainly scream loudly if the recommendation is bogus.

But before I sign on the dotted line, I want to know what those who read me (and are covered by me) think. Good idea, or horribly compromised? Comments, please.