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Column: Transparency

Published: Friday, May 19, 2017 10:05 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, May 19, 2017 10:44 a.m. CDT

Covering an official who has Secret Service protection is meant to be intimidating. During my first experience I was 21 and a college reporter with The Daily Iowan.

President George W. Bush was scheduled to speak at a campaign fundraiser at the Iowa State Fairgrounds for Jeff Lamberti, a former Republican Iowa Senate leader who was contesting incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell for his congressional seat. It was on the eve of what would be the 2006 Democratic wave mid-term election. President Bush was quite unpopular at that point in his presidency with the country as a whole, but still brought out the big donors during campaign speeches.

The DI is a campus newspaper, but full of ambitious — and in my case naive — young reporters eager to be noticed in the hotly watched mid-term coverage. So the paper’s editors sent me to Des Moines to report on the president’s visit — metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and all.

The press was kept behind a rope line during the dinner and the president’s subsequent stump speech. As an inexperienced reporter huddling among the elbow-throwing traveling national press pool, I was irritated. I could not get any closer to the Commander-in-Chief to get that sweet wide-angled shot of the president in a sea of handshakes.

So as soon as the speech ended, and the traveling press returned to the white card tables to clack at their keyboards and file a story, I hopped the rope line, went right up to Mr. Bush and started snapping away.

So busy greeting his base supporters, the president didn’t notice a lone kid photographer capturing the moment he shook hands with a man 6-inches taller wearing a big, black cowboy hat. But the Secret Service agent sure did; I have the proof in my front-page picture which included a man with an earpiece giving the camera some serious side-eye.

Fast forward to 2017 — three more election seasons of reporting experience — I now know the rope line is there for a reason. But that doesn’t mean the government isn’t responsible for providing reasonable access to all public officials.

Community journalists are accustom to a certain level of access with mayors, city council members and other elected officials and don’t give it a second thought.

In West Virginia’s State Capitol May 9, I wonder what Public News Service reporter Dan Hayman thought as he was taken into custody for alleged “willful disruption of state government processes,” according to The Washington Post.

Police and Secret Service took the veteran reporter into custody while he was trying to ask Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Special Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway on cellphone video about the Republican health care bill, which recently passed the House.

Officers claim he was being too aggressive and was warned to back away. Hayman denies the accusation and was released later on a $5,000 bond. Hayman is both a local and nationally syndicated reporter in West Virginia, and has crafted pieces for NPR and The New York Times. He’s no rookie.

If a journalist covers a city council or school board long enough, it’s easy for the officials to see you as a fixture in public meetings just as much as a city clerk, public works director or police chief. We’re all there to fill a role and provide a public service.

Covering the White House or being embedded with a national official might seem like a different league, but it’s a similar premise. If a reporter is part of the White House press core long enough, it’s a strong likelihood they will be on a first-name basis with not only the press secretary, but many times the president himself.

When that access is restricted, it not only comes as a shock to the reporter but is a setback for our democracy. When that reporter is jailed with the support of the official being covered, that is disturbing on a new level.

Contact Mike Mendenhall at mmendenhall@myprairiecitynews.com

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