In some ways, I see both sides of the latest dispute between Gov. Pat McCrory’s office and the “media,” which is changing rapidly with fewer traditional news reporters and more interest groups hiring writers and bloggers to cover the news from particular viewpoints.
For the second time recently, a writer for the liberal advocacy group N.C. Policy Watch was kicked out of an event that the governor’s official public schedule listed as being open to “credentialed press only.” The group routinely criticizes the governor and fellow Republicans who control the General Assembly.
Lindsay Wagner, who covers education for Raleigh-based Policy Watch, showed up at PNC Arena in Raleigh for a meeting of the N.C. Business Committee for Education to cover remarks from the governor, but she was told to leave by PNC officials at the request of the governor’s staff. Previously, Sharon McCloskey, who works for the same liberal group, was denied access to a press conference about the governor’s pardons of two longtime prisoners.
Josh Ellis, a McCrory spokesman, pointed out after Wagner’s removal that the N.C. Association of Broadcasters, N.C. Press Association, Capitol Press Corps and members of media cooperatives such as the Associated Press decide who should and shouldn’t receive credentials. “Simply put, we let the press determine who should be identified as credentialed press,” he said.
Because they work for an advocacy group and not a traditional media organization, neither Wagner nor McCloskey is a credentialed member of the press. Yet writers for Policy Watch and conservative groups such as the John Locke Foundation routinely attend and write about government meetings and press conferences. A few of them are well-respected former reporters for traditional media outlets. I’ve never witnessed any of them act unprofessionally or disrespectfully during events.
On the surface, the fact that only Policy Watch employees have been removed from events looks bad for the governor, who is known to have thin skin and who has said he values government transparency but hasn’t always shown it.
The recent actions by the governor’s office appear to be a sudden shift in policy or sudden enforcement of rules. They come as McCrory’s re-election campaign heats up. He is expected to be challenged by Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper in 2016. With campaign season comes campaign trackers, and it goes without saying that employees for other groups not credentialed as media will try to gain access to McCrory events to catch him on camera saying or doing something that could be used against him in advertising or elsewhere.
If that’s an unstated reason why the governor’s office has changed its ways, then that makes sense. Trackers are a symbol of what’s ugly in politics today, and it won’t bother me at all if they don’t take up limited space and time at press conferences and other events.
A tracker already is following state Sen. Josh Stein, a Wake County Democrat expected to vie for attorney general next year. He attends many of Stein’s legislative committee meetings, recording the senator’s every word and move.
But if there’s a way to differentiate trackers from the hard-working writers for established advocacy groups like N.C. Policy Watch and the John Locke Foundation, the governor’s office should attempt to do so. They offer a valuable service to their readers, too, even if it comes with a bias at times, and have broken important stories about state government.
We often hear at the Legislative Building and throughout the halls of government at other levels that public officials who do the public’s business and spend the people’s money should always err on the side of openness and transparency.
But if the governor’s office denies anyone attendance to events for any particular reason, it should do the same for all who fit that description, with no exceptions, especially for McCrory’s friends on the right.
Time will tell.
Patrick Gannon is the editor of N.C. Insider.