OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — News outlets that want to attend Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ press conferences will have to answer detailed questions about their business model and submit a notarized letter from a manager before they’ll be given access to ask questions under a new policy the governor’s office unveiled Thursday.
The policy was announced after a reporter from an Omaha-based online news outlet said the governor’s office ignored her emailed questions and eventually shut her out of a March 31 news conference that she tried to attend in person. Emily Chen-Newton, the interim managing editor of NOISE, said she first emailed the governor’s office in July 2020 with questions about the pandemic, but was ignored.
The incident prompted Nebraska’s two largest newspapers, the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star, to publish a joint editorial criticizing the decision as an affront to free-press rights and a political move by the conservative Republican governor.
The online outlet, NOISE, is a nonprofit news website founded three years ago to cover Omaha’s minority communities with “community-based journalism that provides useful information and holds representatives and systems accountable,” according to its website.
NOISE, which stands for “North Omaha Information Support Everyone,” has written straightforward stories about bills in the Nebraska Legislature, a civil rights lawsuit filed against the city of Omaha and two police officials and the fatal shooting of protester James Scurlock during Black Lives Matters protest in Omaha last year.
The new press-conference policy requires news outlets to get credentialed by filling out a 12-question application and submitting a notarized letter from a manager confirming that reporters work for the outlet they claim and don’t receive payment from other sources.
The application says the governor’s office will review whether applicants maintain “journalistic integrity” by confirming whether they’re a “bone fide journalist” and have no “real or perceived” conflicts of interest, among other factors.
The credentialing questionnaire also asks if applicants are engaged in lobbying or paid advocacy, and whether there’s a “clear distinction” between each outlet’s newsgathering and editorial-writing divisions. It also inquires about how outlets are funded.
Dawuane Lamont Hayes, who founded NOISE in 2018, said the criteria are so vague and subjective that they allow the governor’s staffers to shut out any news outlet they choose at any time. Hayes said the policy could be applied to any news outlet that asks hard questions or writes less-than-flattering stories about Ricketts or his administration.
“This is a clear attempt to block freedom of the press and freedom of speech and deny access to public information,” said Hayes, a 2016 Creighton University journalism graduate.
Hayes said NOISE hasn’t decided whether to apply for a credential but will continue to cover issues that are important to its readership. He said NOISE reporters have never had issues covering other elected officials, including Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and the city council.
Hayes said the questions NOISE asks and the stories it writes are based on word-of-mouth conversations that its reporters hear in northern Omaha, a predominantly Black region of the city.
The new credentialing rules also expected to draw criticism from Media of Nebraska, a group representing the state’s newspapers and broadcast outlets. The group plans to respond with a letter raising and objections as early as Friday morning.
Taylor Gage, the governor’s strategic communications director, said the governor’s office added the credentialing requirements to help “ensure that the people of Nebraska receive factual information about the business of state government” and set clear guidelines for who’s allowed to attend Ricketts’ news conferences. Gage has previously said NOISE is “an advocacy organization funded by liberal donors,” and not a mainstream news source.
He said the governor’s office is requiring notarized letters of news outlets “to ensure the outlet is being authentically represented in the application.” He said the policy does not apply to state agency press conferences that don’t include Ricketts.
NOISE says on its homepage that it doesn’t accept donations from anonymous sources or those that might create a conflict of interest, such as government entities or political parties. It also discloses all donors who give more than $5,000 a year, including the Sherwood Foundation, a nonprofit founded by philanthropist Susie Buffett that has funded left-of-center advocacy groups. Other major donors include the Omaha Community Foundation and the American Journalism Project.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Ewers faced criticism after his staffers removed a conservative think tank from his press list and denied the group access to his news briefings. A federal judge ruled in Ewers’ favor last month, declaring that Ewers could restrict access using “reasonable, viewpoint-neutral criteria.”
In Nebraska, gubernatorial press conferences have been open to “credentialed media,” but there was no formal application process. Non-reporters including state senators, lobbyists and even members of the public have shown up to press conferences hosted by previous governors.