"Journalism is a public service, like being a fireman or policeman." I heartily agreed with what one of the three journalists shown below said at today's Salem City Club program, The Oregon Legislature Through the Eyes of Journalists."
(From left to right: Aubrey Wieber of the Salem Reporter; Connor Radnovich of the Statesman Journal; Claire Withycombe of the East Oregonian and Salem Reporter -- who was filling in for Hillary Borrud of the Oregonian, whose editor called her away at the last moment for some other duty.)
Before I talk about the substance of what Wieber, Radnovich, and Withycombe said, I want to praise how they said it. Their language was wonderfully concise, to the point, precise. It was like I was listening to a well-written story that told me everything I needed to know, without being overly verbose or overly brief.
Some of the credit goes to City Club member Jan Margosian, who MC'd the program and asked some excellent questions of the journalists, which stimulated their cogent answers. Still, I came away feeling that these reporters were unusually skilled speakers, as well as writers -- perhaps because their job requires them to ask clear questions of people at the Legislature and elsewhere.
Margosian started by asking how many in the audience subscribed to the (online-only) Salem Reporter. It looked like a quarter to a third of us raised our hands. When asked how many subscribe to the Statesman Journal, at least three-fourths did. I also subscribe to the Oregonian, plus the online editions of the New York Times and Washington Post.
Nonetheless, we were told that in recent years there's been a 30-35% decline in newspaper subscribers, with a concomitant drop in reporters. So if you don't subscribe to a daily newspaper/news source, do it. Some reasons are described below.
(I'm not going to identify which of the journalists said what, given that all three had similar attitudes and often started off a reply to a question by saying they agreed with their colleagues.)
When asked what would be different if there were no journalists, an acceptable level of corruption was part of the answer.
This may sound harsh, but it seems absolutely true. Oregon has no campaign finance regulations. A great series of stories in the Oregonian this year cast light on how lobbyists and big-money donors to state legislators wield great influence over decisions of state agencies that often are decidedly at odds with the public interest.
I got to ask about the Oregonian series during the Q&A portion of the program, suggesting that the revelations of corporate influence over supposedly independent regulators (often in environmental/safety issues) likely hit the halls of the legislature with a dull thud that led to no meaningful reforms.
Yes, that was the case, was the response from these legislative journalists. There was some talk of the Oregonian series at first, mainly from upset environmental advocates, but soon it was back to business as usual.
The journalists asked how many people in the audience look at campaign finance reports. I raised my hand. I didn't see any other hands raised. [UPDATE: I've heard from a few people who also had their hand raised.] The message was that if no reporters wrote stories about who is giving money to which candidates for public office, Oregon's unregulated campaign finance system would have no accountability at all.
Politicians respond to people, since that is how they get elected. Public opinion is very important to them. Thus journalists are both vital to state legislators, while also a potential threat to them. Some legislators are highly transparent, while others are much more restrained in their interactions with journalists.
On the whole, though, this is a situational issue.
Meaning, if a politician thinks it is in their interest to be revealing to a reporter, they will be, with the converse being equally true. However, some politicians will tell a journalist that they're not telling them something.
Lobbyists got a surprising amount of love, or at least like, from the three journalists.
Lobbyists often have spent more time at the legislature than the legislators themselves, or reporters. So they can provide a valuable historical perspective. They also are experts on the subjects they lobby about, a boon to journalists even if they choose to speak off the record.
Lobbyists also have a good sense of which bills are likely to pass or fail. However, it is a maxim that no bill is truly dead until a legislative session has adjourned, since there are various techniques (such as "gut and stuff") that can bring a bill back to life at the last moment.
When asked about this legislative session, the Democratic supermajority was felt to provide a different feel than in past sessions. There is more of a sense of momentum to Democratic priorities, not surprisingly. The rent control bill was an early victory that Democrats were proud of.
Tax packages and Cap-And-Trade, the carbon emissions bill, are on the horizon in the next few weeks.
Talk of sexual harassment at the legislature dominated for the first few months of the session. Then a vaccination bill got lots of attention and public interest (to put it mildly). So far gun control legislation has been going nowhere, along with a proposal to lower the DUII level to .05. Utah is the only other state with that level, and even there it was controversial.
Each of the journalists said they have a lot of leeway from their editors to cover whatever legislative issues interest them.
"I go with my gut" said one of them. Another said that the small contingent of reporters covering the state legislature don't want to write the same story, so they tend to focus on different subject areas.
Weirdly, one of the journalists said that after he told someone he was a legislative reporter, the person asked what he was lobbying for. That led to an explanation of the difference between editorializing and reporting -- though personally I think "That's a f**king stupid question" would have been a justified response.