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Journalists barred from floor of Iowa Senate chamber; breaking with more than century of tradition

Journalist Erin Murphy calls access to state senators 'valuable' for readers, viewers, listeners
Posted at 6:47 PM, Jan 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-12 19:47:32-05

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa. (KMTV) — For more than a century at the Iowa capitol, reporters worked on the chamber floor facing Senators' desks. It gave them close access to legislators who can answer any questions journalists have.

"It's just a constant back and forth between the press and those legislators. That is so valuable to the work we do every day to inform our readers, viewers, and listeners," Iowa Capitol Press Association's President Erin Murphy said.

Last year, the media was moved upstairs due to the pandemic. Initially, it made sense to Murphy but he later grew suspicious.

"When we came back for the special session on redistricting in the fall they were still putting media upstairs and we grew concerned they were thinking about this as a more permanent move and that turned out to be the case," Murphy said.

While Iowa House leaders worked out a policy for reporters to work from the House floor, the Senate made different moves. They have reporters to sit on the gallery on the upper level far from the Senators.

"We can't just reach out to them and ask them a question. It's going to be infinitely more challenging now to have that constant back and forth," Murphy said.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver explains the Senators' reasoning.

"There's only a finite number of spots in the Senate chamber, maybe 10-12 spots where media can set up. Over the last couple of years since 2018-2019 we've had more requests from blogs or podcasts or nontraditional media," Whitver said.

Whitver believes it's a "first amendment problem" if they "pick and choose" who gets to sit on the floor.

"When I, as a government official is saying you are legitimate but you are not, now we're content-based or we're actually deciding it from a government role to prevent any of those first amendment problems or lawsuits. Treat them all fair seems to be the most fair way to do it," Whitver said.

Sen. Minority Leader Zach Wahls has a different idea.

"Senate Republicans should answer the question: what are they trying to hide? This isn't, with all due respect to the media, this isn't rocket science. There should be a solution here that is able to address these concerns and Senate Democrats are willing to help Senate Republicans figure it out," Wahls said.

Wahls says constituents have given him ideas on solutions to give the press what they need.

"Is there readership and viewership numbers? Is it based in Iowa? Are they covering the legislature in person? Trying to make sure we're treating Iowa news outlets correctly and not just trying to make sure national outlets have access," Wahls said.

"That conversation can be had. That mission can be accomplished. Might someone be upset about that at the end of the day, possibly? But I don't think the solution is give up and say it's too hard so everybody has to work upstairs in the gallery," Murphy said.

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