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Is the conservative press legitimate?

Is the conservative press legitimate?

This article originally appeared on watchdog.org.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus wants a committee of journalists to decide which reporters are “legitimate” so the Legislature can limit Capitol access to sufficiently apolitical reporters.

Straus made his suggestion to Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune, during a public interview at TribFest, the Tribune’s lucrative annual conference in Austin.

The timing of Straus’ remarks is noteworthy.

Since the last legislative session, three right-leaning publications have come to figure more prominently in Texas politics, and none has been particularly favorable to the Republican speaker.

Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Empower Texans website continues to hire reporters and analysts. Breitbart launched a Texas-specific publication in February and publishes articles by Sullivan.

Watchdog.org has figured in the biggest political story of the last year, the University of Texas admissions scandal and the impeachment of Wallace Hall.

Sullivan is Straus’ main antagonist in state politics. Breitbart has criticized Straus in dozens of articles. Watchdog.org has spotlighted Straus’ role in the admissions scandal, and criticized his effort to decrease government transparency.

Ramsey asked Straus if he planned to distinguish between journalists and advocates when deciding who to allow onto the House floor during the legislative session. In the old days, Ramsey said, it was easy to identify reporters,  all of whom worked for newspapers, TV, or radio.

“Now it’s blurry and there are journalists who work for publications of whatever kind that have an ideological viewpoint,” Ramsey said. “One of them is 60 years old, The Texas Observer, they have been here for ages. When you get to this point where you’re looking at a spectrum of people calling themselves journalist who includes sort of like old-school definition of journalist all the way to maybe this is an advocate, do we let them on the floor of the House? Where is the thinking on this right now?”

“I don’t know,” Straus answered. “I do know what I would like to see happen and I would like for the press association or the whatever organization is out there of media members to kind of maybe self-describe what’s legitimate and what’s not. I don’t know.”

The Legislature has long granted access to left-leaning reporters from Texas Monthly and the Texas Observer, not to mention the dailies. Straus has had little to object to from Texas Monthly, which regularly puts him and his allies on its list of Best Legislators.

“But the media landscape clearly is changing,” Straus said.  “The Texas Tribune is an example of that. But those that have a political point of view that then engage in campaign politics and they’re nothing but political consultants who were working in the off year, maybe it would fit under a different definition. But the San Antonio Express News makes endorsements in campaigns, so I don’t know where the line is, but it’s a tricky one and it’s complicated. Again, I would like for maybe the media associations to help us sort it out.”

According to House rules, the House Committee on Administration oversees press credentials, said Straus spokesman Jason Embry. The chairman of the committee is Rep. Charlie Geren, one of Straus’ lieutenants.

That sort of arrangement is common in state legislatures. Correspondents committees handle credentialing for U.S. Congress.

According to a legal brief filed for the Society of Professional Journalists, when “a government official denies a reporter a press pass because of something he or she has published, the denial is presumptively unconstitutional. However, government officials are unlikely to expressly state that they are withholding a credential for this reason.”

Handing credentialing over to a press committee helps elected officials dodge liability. Press committees, however, are made up mostly of mainstream reporters comfortable with the magazines and alt weeklies that have been telling compelling and factual stories from left of center and much less so with the same kind of reporting and storytelling from the right.

Watchdog asked Sullivan and Breitbart Texas’ editor, Brandon Darby, whether they would be applying for Capitol press credentials.

“No one from Empower Texans has ever applied for floor access,” Sullivan said. “I had legislative press credentials years ago when I was at the Denison Herald and Brazosport Facts. Not to say Empower Texans wouldn’t in the future, but thus far we have not.”

Darby didn’t respond right away.

Watchdog.org’s Deputy Editor Mark Lisheron has had credentials for years. This reporter doesn’t, and doesn’t plan to ask for any.

Which doesn’t mean this reporter would sit still for a press committee denying him the option.

Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.


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