By Tiger Haynes, Editor
MEDIA COVERAGE RESTRICTED AT RFK JR. EVENT
While browsing the various news wires this week, I was somewhat taken aback to find precious little coverage of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Thursday speech at Purdue University. Then I found out why.
Turns out, the news media’s access to this event was severely restricted: no audio or video recordings allowed.
One of the local television channels, WLFI-TV, tried to cover Kennedy’s speech, but their cameras were turned away at the door. As pointed out in both the text of that station’s web site story, and by a seemingly annoyed anchorman on the evening news that night (watch the video here), “News Channel 18 was not allowed to capture video of his (Kennedy’s) presentation.”
From what I gather so far, the news media were allowed inside the auditorium. Still photographers were allowed to snap a few flash-free pictures during the first three minutes of Kennedy’s speech. Journalists were allowed to take notes by hand. But they were not allowed to document and verify the accuracy of their quotes with an audio or video recording, thus rendering them unable to produce coverage of the event which meets current legal and industry standards.
That certainly explained why the only two articles written about Kennedy’s Purdue speech were riddled with inaccurate and indirect quotations.
As someone who has attended Mr. Kennedy’s speeches enough times to practically have his prepared remarks memorized by now, I spotted the misquotes right away. Before learning of the “no audio or video” policy at Kennedy’s Purdue event, I wondered why my fellow journalists were resorting to 1930s-era newsgathering methods (frantically scribbling on a notepad and hoping to hell they got it right) when more modern technology is readily available to help them do their jobs.
Justin Mack of the Journal & Courier only used two direct quotes from Kennedy in his article, resorting to paraphrasing and comments from audience members to fill up the remaining column inches.
In the Exponent, Purdue’s campus newspaper, staff reporter Nisha Deo wound up roughly paraphrasing the majority of Kennedy’s remarks — because the reporter apparently had no other choice.
This is not indicative of press laziness or negligence, but rather points to something much darker and far more troubling: a disturbing national trend towards restricting media access at public events.
DEPENDS ON WHAT YOUR DEFINITION OF “FREEDOM OF THE PRESS” IS
On college campuses, this trend has escalated in recent years to the point where most major universities now have policies on media access. These rules (disguised by the more friendly-sounding and legally nonbinding word “guidelines”) are published in campus policy memos and posted on the university’s websites so that journalists, faculty, staff and students can be familiar with them. While most of these “media guidelines” are just common-sense stuff that responsible journalists don’t have to be told (for example: don’t follow a professor into the bathroom with a camera rolling. Duh.), all this legalese plays fast and loose with the First Amendment and the right of a free press.
Recognizing that no public institution which recieves public funds has any legal right to restrict press access to their campuses, most of the guidelines set forth by universities are indeed reasonable. In general, most policies agree that the news media does not need permission to videotape on campus, except in areas not typically open to the public, such as dorms or classrooms. Most campus policies also convey the understanding that if a press release is issued regarding a specific event (such as Purdue’s press release for RFK Jr.’s appearance), the media does not need special approval to cover that event. (The press release itself is considered an invitation to do so, although some colleges require additional credentialing for specific events.)
Nonetheless, these “reasonable” rules are sometimes perverted and twisted to deny access to certain media organizations who might provide unfavorable coverage or reporters who may be known to ask tough questions, for example. In other words, the “media guidelines” set forth by a university can be used to bar members of the press for any number of arbitrary reasons. This would be clearly unconstitutional.
After doing a thorough search of Purdue University’s website, I found that Purdue (unlike the majority of American universities today) does not have an official policy regarding news media access to the campus. Or if they do have such a policy, it is not available on their website.
I did, however, find a news release put out by Purdue’s News Service in advance of a speech given by Colin Powell on campus in February, 2007. Powell’s appearance was sponsored by the Purdue College of Engineering, who also sponsored Mr. Kennedy’s recent speech as part of their annual National Engineers Week celebration.
In that news release, the same media “guidelines” for Powell’s 2007 event appear to be exactly the same as those employed for Kennedy’s event this week. Although in that case, the university makes it clear that the media restrictions were at the personal request of Colin Powell — not the university itself — as a condition of his appearance on the campus:
Please note the following stipulations by Powell (emphasis mine – Ed.) concerning his 8 p.m. address:
At the event, journalists:
• May take video of the lobby of Loeb as attendees enter the playhouse. No video may be taken in Loeb Playhouse.
• May take photos at the photo opportunity and during the first three minutes of Powell’s talk. No flash photography is permitted.
• May not take any audio.
• May not direct any questions toward Powell.
Now of course, most seasoned journalists would read these rules and laugh out loud, “are you freakin’ kidding me?” Problem is, neither Powell or the university are kidding around here. They’re quite serious. And if you don’t abide by these “media guidelines,” you’ll be out on your bum…or at the very least, you sure won’t get much of a story.
But as a journalist, if you can’t tape record the speaker’s remarks or even ask a question, then why are you there?
This is exactly the question my editor would ask me if I returned to the newsroom empty-handed after being assigned to cover a certain event. If my news organization had gone to the time and trouble to set up media credentials for a reporter and/or a photographer and set aside space for that story to run, you’re damn right they’d be pretty annoyed with me when I shrugged and told them I didn’t have a story because “someone said recording devices were not allowed.”
Any decent editor would probably tell me to go get another job. Followed by this old saw:
“Look kid, when you’re assigned to cover a story, we expect you to get that story. If we can send journalists into a frickin’ war zone and get amazing stories out of them daily, we think you can handle filing footage of someone speaking at a local college campus. This ain’t rocket science, son, and your assignment could be a lot tougher. So quit whining about how some rent-a-cop wouldn’t let you in the door, already. We don’t pay you a salary to stand around looking good. We pay you to gather and report the news!”
Yep, that’s what any wizened, no-nonsense editor worth his or her salt would say to me, allright. And of course, I’d go home, crack open a six-pack of beer (to cry in) and pour through the help wanted ads hoping there might be a news organization out there in the world somewhere who might just hire me to not report the news.
“WHAT PART OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?”
I thought I would pose the question to my “boss,” New Frontier, founding editor of this blog. She’s been my editor and mentor for nearly three years now, helping me navigate the often murky waters of obtaining my degree in journalism. After all, she been working as an editor in print and broadcast newsrooms since before I was even born, so surely she’d have an opinion on this whole Purdue/Kennedy situation, right?
Well, she sure did, and her passionate argument of “what part of the First Amendment do you not understand?” made me damn glad she’s not that poor cameraman at WLFI-TV’s editor! (I might also add that I’m damn glad that I’m not the cameraman at WLFI-TV, or I might just be standing in the unemployment line right now.)
So, I asked her, what should a reporter do under those circumstances? What is the proper procedure to follow when you or your organization is denied access to cover a public event? Then, just to draw a good hypothetical, I used this week’s Purdue/Kennedy incident as an example. If I had been the reporter assigned to the story, and I was told upon arrival at the event to put my camera or tape recorder away, what would she, as my editor, advise me to do?
She laid out a time-proven battle plan for journalists. And it goes a little something like this:
* If you are a credentialed member of the press, on assignment to cover an event, and you are denied access or the ability to fully do your job, the first thing you do is complain. Find an event manager or better yet, a media relations representative for the university and tell them you wish to be admitted and to perform your duties without unreasonable restrictions.
* If that doesn’t work, and the event is still in progress, call your editor immediately. You’d be amazed at the results a good editor can get in these situations with just a few well-placed phone calls. Chances are good that you’ll be in the door, camera in hand, within 5-10 minutes.
* If it is an after-hours event, or no responsible person to make decisions on the university’s behalf can be located in person or by phone, you may have to resort to less-desirable tactics, such as yelling in a crowded room of students that your First Amendment rights as a member of the press are being infringed. That tends to get the attention of higher-ups rather quickly. The downside is, it may also get you arrested for disturbing the peace! So if you have to use this tactic, be prepared to go to jail for a few hours until your editor can bail you out. Make sure you have your editor’s permission to engage in this act of civil disobedience and your news org’s solemn pledge that they will defend you legally as a representative of that news organization.
* If you have the support and backing of your editor and your news organization, go to court. A precedent-setting case will help future generations of journalists have free and fair access to cover public figures in public places.
* Make a story out of the fact that you have no story. If you are denied the ability to produce your story (for example, if you work for a TV station and can’t really produce a story without video footage), that is a story in itself. Write about the resistance you encountered as a member of the press and let the people decide in the court of public opinion.
* As soon as possible after the event, contact the university spokesperson and ask them to comment on why your organization was denied access, and what the university’s media access policy is. Publish that comment in your story and also try to obtain official statements on the matter from the university president or college dean.
In the specific case of what happened at Purdue Thursday night, my “editorial guru” was very adamant that the first thing that must be determined is exactly who was responsible for the decision to prevent media from taking audio or video of the event. Was this Purdue’s policy, or were the press restrictions imposed at Mr. Kennedy’s request?
As the founding editor of this blog, New Frontier found it very hard to believe that any of this was Kennedy’s idea. Knowing Bobby somewhat, she didn’t think such actions to be indicative of his character. We have covered several of his public appearances in the past (some on university campuses) and never experienced any difficulty obtaining media access or credentials. No restrictions were placed upon us; we were always allowed to tape and photograph freely. So while she couldn’t say for certain if this Purdue media blackout was at Kennedy’s request, she did encourage me to do some research and get to the bottom of it.
So I tried to obtain a comment from someone at Purdue University today. So far, no response to my written request for a clarification on the matter. As soon as we recieve definitive word from Purdue as to which party imposed these restrictions on the press, we’ll post an update here. Stay tuned…
UPDATE: (Monday, Feb. 23, 2009): According to Jeanne Norberg of Purdue’s News Service, the decision to prohibit audio and video recordings of RFK Jr’s speech was made by Mr. Kennedy’s representatives at Keppler Speakers. Keppler is the agency that exclusively handles all of Kennedy’s speaking engagements.