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Oppenheim: Violating Norms

In all my years as a reporter, I was never thrown out of a public meeting.

There were some instances of being pushed around - like when some bully or his representative made me move or essentially tried to swat me like a fly at a police briefing or political event, but that’s not unusual.

In fact, part of being a journalist is learning to be resilient. And when you get knocked down, you get right back up and keep doing your job. But when a public event is open to the news media, the media gets to go. No one gets to say – everyone’s invited… except you.

Indeed, the first amendment speaks to this, though experts quibble as to whether pushing a news organization aside is an actual violation of the law. What we do know is access to public and government meetings is a norm – and one now being increasingly violated.

Just a few days ago, three news organization were barred from a Washington event where Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, was speaking. Reporters and crews from CNN, the Associated Press and E&E News, an environmental issues publication, were told they couldn’t enter. When AP reporter Ellen Knickmeyer complained, she was grabbed by the shoulders and shoved out of the building by a security guard.

Later, an EPA staffer called Knickmeyer to say sorry and she was then allowed inside. So given the apology, some might view this as kind of small, not worthy of much concern.

Not me. When the government starts to pick and choose the media organizations that cover it, we’re in trouble. And remember, this isn’t the only recent example.

Last year, then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer kept several news organizations out of a briefing. Earlier this month, the President complained in a tweet about negative coverage and suggested credentials for some news outlets should be pulled.

No doubt, information and access aren’t always equal. Reporters are competitive and jockey for a scoop. But despite this natural rivalry, journalists stand together on this: they all get to go to news conferences and fire questions at our officials. That’s the way it works.

In the end, roughing up one AP reporter actually may signal more than simply the violation of a norm. It may represent one more step toward the beginning of an authoritarian society.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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