Cold Shoulder

Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner was the first to arrive, showing up at 7:00 p.m. That's when council president Peter Steinbrueck was scheduled to appear at the Saturday, July 12, Capitol Hill Block Party--in the dunk tank. After a few tosses, Brunner sent Pres Steinbrueck plummeting into the tub of chlorinated water. "That's for the access policy at the new city hall," Brunner chimed.

Brunner may have been joking then, but the previous week he was angry, complaining to council about the recent Steinbrueck policy that limits reporters' access at the new city hall. Brunner also brought the issue to the attention of his editors at the Times.

The new policy seems innocuous. It works like this: When a reporter wants to get past the receptionist into the council corridor, he or she needs to get permission from a council member or staffer, and may only visit that person. The policy, council spokesperson Martin Munguia explains, treats reporters no differently than any member of the public. After all, why should newspaper reporters have special privileges? (At the old city hall, reporters flashed credentials, signed in, and walked the hall, checking in with whoever felt like chatting.)

"I recognize we had more access than Joe Average," Brunner says, "but it ultimately benefits the public. [The new policy] makes my job more difficult, and I don't see the benefit."

I don't like to agree with the Times, but Brunner is right. Heck, according to an editorial staffer at Roll Call in Washington, D.C. --the paper that covers Congress--reporters have open access to staff offices there, and "walk the hall" all the time. This is the way newspapering, a key ingredient in democracy, works. By preventing reporters from informally checking in with council, Steinbrueck is giving public servants control over public watchdogs and cultivating an unhealthy relationship, one that keeps reporters out of the information loop and keeps the public off-guard as public policy develops.

Meanwhile, say council members take a controversial vote in public chambers, and don't want to answer questions afterward. They can retreat into the council corridor. Under the previous scheme, a reporter's privileged access made sense. While you don't want hundreds of people storming the council offices, it made sense to send reporters back.

Steinbrueck, of course, will argue that reporters, like the public, can schedule an appointment. While lumping reporters in with the public sounds fair, it's disingenuous. Reporters exist because council members cannot schedule an appointment with every member of the public. Treating reporters as ordinary citizens limits public access further. I know this from experience. As a reporter, you sometimes wind up in antagonistic relationships with council members, and they simply won't schedule appointments. Steinbrueck has refused to meet me on several occasions. With an open-door policy, it's harder for council members to give reporters the cold shoulder.

By introducing an appointment-only policy, the new city hall--which was billed as more user-friendly than the old city hall--is starting off on a decidedly unfriendly note.