When a public official refuses to take a reporter’s questions, what is a journalist to do?
Go to court to demand a judge order the official to do so?
Well, that’s exactly what Jeff Landfield of The Alaska Landmine, an upstart online news site, and his attorneys have done.
In a case filed with the Alaska Superior Court in Anchorage, attorneys Matthew Singer and Lee Baxter argue Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “refusal to invite Landfield and The Alaska Landmine to the governor’s press briefings violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 5 of the Alaska Constitution.”
“Press” was not defined by the framers of that document, but the nation’s courts have over the years broadly defined both “press” and “freedom of speech.”
In a landmark 2010 case, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that a law restricting spending on political campaigns was an illegal restraint on speech.
In a concurring opinion on that case – Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission (FEC) – the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a constitutional fundamentalist, argued the meaning of “press” as used in 1791 had nothing to do with the media but was instead “widely understood to protect the publishing activities of individual editors and printers.”
Landfield, as the founder of The Landmine, is in the publishing business, but he’s not quite your traditional journalist. A three-time former candidate for the state Senate, he has spent more time making news than covering news.
Still, some of the “news” the Landmine has produced has shined light into dark corners that needed to be exposed.
Twisted up in gray
In Citizens United in 2010 and a broad variety of cases before it, SCOTUS justices over the decades have concluded the nation’s founders wanted to ensure Americans the broadest possible access to freedom of speech.
The justices have allowed near-unlimited latitude to criticize the morals, ethics and behaviors of public and elected officials and restrained criticism of public figures only slightly more. The justices blocked elected officials from restricting what can be published sans a court review. And in Citizens, they ruled Congress lacked the authority to limit how much or how little money people could spend to advocate for their views.
The roots of the Citizens case were tangled in part in the question of who qualifies as a “bonafide commercial filmmaker” in the U.S. The FEC decided Citizens, a right-wing advocacy group, didn’t qualify and blocked it from airing a documentary highly critical of Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry.
The dispute between Landmine-founder Landfield and the Dunleavy administration in some ways parallels the Citizen’s case in that it hinges on the bonafides of Landfield and the Landmine.
Dunleavy chief of staff Ben Stevens on Friday framed the essence of the issue in four words: “Who is a journalist?”
Stevens said the Dunleavy administration isn’t trying to keep legitimate journalists out of its media briefings; it’s simply trying to ensure the working media can do its job without interference from others engaged in what has become a very complicated information business.
Traditional media once regularly trashed by former Alaska governor and national polebrity Sarah Palin as the “lamestream media” in a twist on a more common label as “mainstream media,” once defined itself.
The media was the local newspaper or two; a handful of press associations, The Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and others around the world that collected ”news” for their paying members; and local TV and radio stations with daily news programs.
Getting into any of those businesses required a significant capital investment, which for decades served to limit the number of media businesses and, in turn, the number of journalists.
This made it easy to define who was a “journalist.” He or she was someone who worked for an established community or national news organization.
Then the internet blew it all up. The news went online, and the costs of starting a news publication went from millions of dollars to peanuts almost overnight.
The mainstream media, in an effort to differentiate itself, tried to stigmatize many of these starts up as “bloggers” as opposed to real newsgathering operations. But over the years, some of the bloggers began to look more and more like news reporters and some of the news reporters started to look more and more like bloggers.
Today, it’s often hard to tell one from the other.
Some consider The Landmine a blog, but Landfield’s attorneys call the website “a trusted source of news and information for Alaska on the web and on social media platforms Facebook and Twitter….(and) the 31st Alaska Legislature has credentialed Landfield as a member of the Alaska media.”
In other words, the Legislature – a body full of people who covet attention – gave Landfield a so-called “press pass.” The document is not hard to obtain. The Legislature makes no attempt to define “press.”
It simply asks applicants for such a pass to name the “organization” for which they work, review the Capitol Press Rules, and “sign an application for the pass that verifies they have read the rules and agree to abide by the rules. If a person fails to abide by the press rules, he or she will lose press privileges.”
Landfield’s suit says that prior to 2020 the press-pass-packing sometimes provocateur was invited to Dunleavy’s office for press briefings but then the invites stopped. Landfield said he has never been able to find out why.
His lawsuit says Jeff Turner, the deputy communications director for the office of the governor, “implied to others that Landfield is not a ‘real’ journalist.”
Turner did not return phone calls from craigmedred.news. Landfield texted that this is a Turner norm. But such behavior is not all that unusual among spokespeople in the state, local or federal governments these days.
It is understandable. The easiest way to deal with difficult or unwelcome questions is to ignore them if you can.
“On information and believe,” Landfield’s suit says, “Stevens and Turner have sought to exclude Landfield from gubernatorial press briefings because the governor’s office disfavors Landfield’s reporting and viewpoint.”
There is likely some truth to that claim, but there are others the Dunleavy administration is known to disfavor who are invited to press briefings, and Landfield’s suit itself concedes that “Turner has invited other journalists from The Alaska Landmine to attend gubernatorial briefings. On one occasion, Turner contacted a reporter from The Alaska Landmine who has previously worked for the Juneau Empire and advised she was invited because she was a ‘real’ journalist or reporter.”
This sort of feuding between public officials – elected and otherwise – and reporters has a long, rich history in Alaska. Before the internet, the common practice was for the public or elected official to complain to a reporter’s editor or news director about coverage and demand that either someone else be assigned to the “beat” or the reporter be ordered to change his or her behavior.
An Anchorage Daily News reporter once got a bad job review for asking the Anchorage Police Department “too many questions” and was told to stop doing so. Police chiefs, mayors, governors and other politicians have all from time to time fingered journalists to whom they wouldn’t talk, and it’s not just an Alaska issue.
In March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis barred Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times reporters from a media briefing on the pandemic. In April, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson barred reporters from attending briefings at the state Capitol.
In August, Michigan Gov. Gritchen Whitmer banned all reporters from personally attending her briefing and, according to the Detroit News, “allowed reporters to participate only virtually and appeared to select individuals to ask Whitmer questions after they posted their questions in the video application.”
In all those cases, media or media organizations objected, but not much more happened.
After Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker banned Chicago-area journalist Amy Jacobson from his briefings, however, Jacobson sued with the backing of “Liberty Justice Center, a Chicago-based conservative public-interest litigation center,” Chicago media reporter Robert Feder wrote.
The claim was that “Pritzker’s ban violated Jacobson’s First Amendment rights to freedom of the press and free speech as well as her rights to equal protection and due process.”
The Florida incident is in some ways the most interesting among the recent incidents of press restraint. That state, like Alaska, has a strong public meetings law, and reporters there accused the state’s governor of violating it by locking out some reporters.
Public meeting laws, however, open a big can of worms:
Why should public meetings hosted by a state’s governor be limited to journalists in the first place? Why should those involved in the business of journalism – and it is a business – be given precedence over private citizens?
An argument can, of course, be made that if too many are allowed to participate in the question-and-answer process, briefings can deteriorate into chaos. But, at least in Alaska, there is no sign of overcrowding.
In fact, as Landfield’s legal brief notes, “because of recent reductions in print journalism, these press briefings are sparsely attended and there has never been a gubernatorial press briefing where there were not enough seats or space for attendees.”
Given how hard it is becoming to define who is and who isn’t a “journalist,” there would seem to be a valid argument for the state to simply treat gubernatorial briefings like any other public meeting and open the doors to whoever wants to attend rather than trying to define the indefinable, although the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson came up with a pretty good description long ago.
It left journalism sounding a lot like “blogging.” Now, cover the eyes of the children and read on:
“Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits—a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”
By that standard, Landfield would appear to qualify as a journalist.
And suffice to say that if journalism was even half the high-minded calling some journalists claim it to be, there would be no need for journalism awards. But journalism awards are a big business and a big deal among journalists even if the inaccuracies attributed to some of the award winners might embarrass a self respecting blogger.