ONB COLUMBUS: After nearly four months of engaging the Ohio Legislative Correspondents Association (OLCA) to review and rule on a request by ePluribus Media to secure Statehouse press corps credentials for three of its journalists, a rejection of those candidates was received Tuesday citing “the appearance of political bias and a lack of adherence to professional journalism standards as referenced in the OLCA constitution,” as reasons arrived at by the group’s board of officers.
Here’s their thumbs-down verdict:
The executive board of the Ohio Legislative Correspondents Association met today (Jan. 8) to consider the applications of three people associated with ePluribus Media to join the association yourself, Timothy D. Smith and Anastasia Pantsios. The board researched and discussed the applications in depth.
The board was not in a position to discuss whether the content of ePluribus Media was of value to anyone in particular. In fact, board members suggested your organization's work could have value to citizens and others. Thus, we are not commenting on whether the material the organization produces is good or bad. And we did not discuss nor make a decision about the role of bloggers in political discourse. Board members, however, were required to decide whether the content of and the work of those who provide it to ePluribus Media meet the highest professional standards of journalism.
The board unanimously rejected ePluribus Media's three applications based on the appearance of political bias and a lack of adherence to professional journalism standards as referenced in the OLCA constitution.
I want to emphasize that the board took the applications very seriously and took a very deliberative and reasoned approach to arriving at its decision. I also want to make sure you know that those associated with ePluribus Media, as well as any member of the public, has a right to attend House and Senate committee meetings, sessions of the House and Senate in the chambers' public areas and to interview people in the halls of the statehouse without being a member of OLCA. Lack of membership, however, prevents you and your associates from having access to the floors of the two chambers, using the pressroom and being included on our membership list.
I'm sorry the news of the board's decision is not one you wanted to hear. We wish you good luck in your endeavor.
Paul E. Kostyu
Anticipating the group would arrive at this decision, a response letter seeking truthful answers to important questions was returned to Mr. Kostyu:
The OhioNews Bureau news and information team of ePluribus Media asked me to thank you for convening the OLCA board to discuss and rule on our request that three of our contributing journalists become active, credentialed members in the Ohio Statehouse press corps.
That the OLCA board has unanimously rejected all three of our candidates comes as no surprise. We have long anticipated this decision; and, frankly, a different decision would have been truly astonishing. Despite knowing that our request would be unwelcome, the significance of making it remains important – and newsworthy.
The kind of pioneering efforts to foster change we view ours to be are worth the instructive scars that come with failing. But with rejection, a renewal of spirit and a new determination to make the march again is not unusual. As you and your members know, the desire for change is in the air this election year. And ePluribus Media embodies the kind of change citizens are calling for from their news sources.
We are pleased to hear that your board's members consider an emerging news media group like ours to be of value to "citizens and others." This is good. Likewise, we consider the work of your group's established members to be of value to citizens and others as well. In fact, though we operate in different environments, we see parity in our contributions and products within the public sphere to those of your group's members.
We believe, however, that we are owed truthful answers to important questions raised by your rejection of our application, questions that undercut the subjective rationalizations you've used to reject our candidates, questions that make it appear that you do not adhere to the very tenants of your own constitution—or to the journalistic ethics that you claim to uphold.
For starters, please explain to us why you permit people who work for news groups that belong to the Ohio Newspaper Association (ONA) – which actively lobbies the Ohio Legislature, most importantly on access to public records and legislation pertaining to advertising revenue to newspapers– to be members? As far as we can determine, based on most of your members and the newspapers they write for, this is a blatant violation of your constitution .
From even the most liberal interpretation of the OLCA constitution on this point, this is a giant conflict of interest. Certainly, it provides as much of a "bias" as anything ePluribus Media can be accused of, and we're not members of the ONA, your industry's chief lobbying group.
Pursuant to your board's judgment that our three applications were rejected "based on the appearance of political bias and a lack of adherence to professional journalism standards as referenced in the OLCA constitution," please explain to us where in your constitution or bylaws we would find definitions for what constitutes the "highest standards of professional journalism" or "political bias?"
Political bias seems to be in the eye of the beholder. When truth is spoken to power, it is customary and convenient to label such reporting as politically biased. By guaranteeing the delivery of "responsible reporters" to the General Assembly of Ohio, as your group's purpose states, the work of our journalists is no more politically biased than the works of several OLCA members, including Mr. Hallett of The Columbus Dispatch, Mr. Willard of the Akron Bean Journal, Ms. Bischoff of The Dayton Daily News or Mr. Williamson of The Other Paper, among others, whose work elicits from "citizens and others," including a long list of Ohio political bloggers, accusations of showing favoritism to one candidate or issue. You may choose to ignore these perceptions of politically biased reporting among your members, but such perceptions exist in realty nonetheless.
Please explain to us why a reporter for Fox 8 News in Cleveland, Mr. Damschroder, who is not an OLCA member but who works for a news network run by Roger Ailes, an avowed, politically biased Republican operative, is permitted access to the floors of the House and Senate? During my tenure with OLCA, I witnessed this first-hand on many occasions. Why doesn't OLCA bar Mr. Damschroder, who also once ran for public office as a political partisan and who worked for a partisan officeholder, from these two hallowed grounds?
We understand the fears a staid, establishment group like OLCA may have when confronted by the unwelcome specter of new types of news gathering and dissemination, including the rise of new-media journalists, who as a new class of reporters are every inch as professional, thorough, accurate, timely and insightful as any OLCA member or establishment journalist.
We followed, as assume you did, the tragic but avoidable experiment that took place this past summer when the Plain Dealer tried to incorporate "partisan political bloggers" into its news mix. While we understand that admitting a group like ours would encroach on the territoriality of many of your group's members, we also believe that our efforts are worthwhile despite their anticipated failure. The world of news gathering and presentation is changing. We won't be the last "new media" group to come knocking at your press-room door.
Furthermore, if OLCA is so sensitive to perceptions of inappropriate political liaisons, as you say you are, why do you permit a long-time Democratic operative daily access to your lunch table, when the goal of this operative is to influence the reporters that gather there? Would you allow a Republican counterpart to do the same? Is the Statehouse press room an open forum for political operatives to come lobby the press on a regular basis, or is it to be used for such purposes only upon invitation or in special circumstances? This chronic practice clearly compromises your assertions of maintaining high standards of journalism.
The underlying financial reasons as to why some OLCA members don't embrace emerging media groups like ePluribus Media being allowed to enter the Statehouse press room has not escaped out attention. Admitting a group like ours would mean that others would follow. This would mean that a small group of players, who have much to loose if others are allowed in, would no longer be able to use their privileged access to two small turfs of prized real estate to generate the kind of business revenue made possible through the bottleneck the Ohio Legislature insures by refusing to provide for the recording of all its activities, as other progressive states have chosen to do. If that sounds harsh, it is meant to. Ours is supposed to be an open society, not one where access to information is controlled by any one group like OLCA, which obviously is more beholding to the General Assembly than it is to "citizens and others" who seek truth, no matter what source delivers it.
As a former OLCA member writing for The Hannah News Service, and based on discussions I've had with other former OLCA members, including past presidents, I know well the intra-group squabbles over how Hannah was kept at bay by its main competitor who was finally out foxed years later when a change in the bylaws to not exclude them was agreed upon as an acceptable compromise. Eventually, you may have to do this again for emerging media groups like ePluribus Media, for the changing news environment will not be denied, not in the long run.
Paul, it's unfortunate that a group like OLCA, one that claims to be the protectorate of high standards of journalism, that uses its so-called aversion to political bias to exclude clearly qualified journalists as measured by the sparse written standards in your application, would subject itself to political gamesmanship and turn a blind eye to clear conflicts of interest among your own members and their news organizations they represent. Coming as it were from members who clamor for access to the shops of others but who are hyper defensive when it comes to their own bailiwick, the decision of your board is both sad and wrong, but instructive as to why the traditional commercial news media are failing the "citizens and others" it is designed to serve.
We think the preamble of your constitution bears repeating, especially the language that defines the purpose of OLCA to "encourage all public officials in the proper exercise of their public duties; to foster cooperation among its members for the common good; and to preserve and protect free and open access to information and the people's right to know."
Accordingly, the OhioNews Bureau and the ePluribus Media team that collaborates to make it possible, look forward to your response to our questions and concerns. Thank you in advance for your anticipated help and assistance with our request.
John Michael Spinelli
OhioNews Bureau Chief
 "Each member shall, before receiving his/her membership card, sign a statement that he/she is not engaged in the promotion of legislation or in the production of claims pending before the General Assembly and will not become so engaged while allowed the privileges of the floor and that he/she is not in any sense the agent or representative of an individual or organization having legislation before the General Assembly and will not become either while retaining those privileges." [7th paragraph, OLCA bylaws]
OHIO NEWS BUREAU BACKGROUND
EPluribus Media launched the OhioNews Bureau (ONB) in July 2007, as a pioneering model for a larger network of first state news bureaus.
Reflecting on the not-for-profit business model of The Associated Press, which was launched 162 years ago in 1846 and now boasts bureaus in every state, the audacity of the ONB is that we hope it will lead to more ePMedia outposts in sync with and anticipation of the furious election year 2008 promises to be, a year Americans will select new public officials at all levels, most notably, a new president and Congress.
As someone who came to journalism late in life, after a successful career in both the private and public sectors that emphasized non-profit development, community economic development, and award-winning collaborations focused on urban renewal and grantsmanship and general communication strategy, I embarked on yet another opportunity and challenge with an emerging new-media group whose future lay ahead of it.
From my cub reporter days for a chain of weekly suburban newspapers in Central Ohio covering business and government to the launch of Profiles in Business, my Sunday series analyzing the dynamics of business and the people that run them, to my years as an Ohio Statehouse reporter, journalism, as now modified and energized by the growth of worthy citizen journalists who have changed the landscape of news, has become my passion.
Leaving my position as Information Manager for the Ohio Secretary of State in late April to assume caregiver duties for my aging brother, the last member of my immediate family, I used my new-found time to become an active, contributing member of the ePluribus Media community.
Working principally with Cho , Roxy and Aaron Barlow, we developed a collaborative and creative plan to launch a series of state news bureaus, starting with Ohio. For three years, I worked on Ohio government news as a credentialed member-in-good standing of the a.k.a. the Ohio Statehouse press corps, which today includes 21 news organizations and 42 correspondents.
OLCA was created in 1893 by the Ohio General Assembly to accredit Statehouse reporters who work for established news groups. As we learn from its Website, OLCA “functions independently to ensure only legitimate reporters are granted floor privileges in the House of Representatives and Senate” and “acts as a watchdog to preserve the rights of the public and press to access government records and meetings.”
Of course, the definition of “independently” and “legitimate” are not defined in either the group’s constitution or its bylaws. The reliance upon subjective judgments as opposed to clear definitions of what these and other terms mean in reality served as the basis for denying the candidates ePluribus Media submitted for active membership in OLCA.
The primary privilege OLCA controls, which is not available to the public at large, is access to the floors of the Ohio Senate and House. These two, small parcels of pubic real estate are where Ohio’s 33 senators and 99 representatives convene to debate and pass laws. Upon this hallowed ground, only members of OLCA can trod during legislative sessions to mingle with legislators and their staff, abiding by chamber rules and maintaining decorum, as controlled by the Clerks of each chamber. All others are segregated to the pubic space beyond the ornate railings of the Senate or relegated to the public gallery that overlooks the House. The Ohio General Assembly also provides OLCA with its Statehouse press room space, which is provided free of charge. Active members of OLCA – who pay $60 a year – can vote on organizational matters and serve as a board member.
Membership in OLCA delivers a level of respectability reserved for members that non-members don’t have. For the news media, membership in OLCA is equivalent to being a member of your local yacht club or private club.
While others talked about making such an overture, ePluribus Media took that pioneering step. We deserve the credit for attempting to scale the walls that defend established news media from emerging new-media groups like ours. We are not alone in our thinking, as this article, one of many, duly notes.
The OhioNews Bureau will continue undaunted. EPluribus Media will continue to work to establish more state news bureaus. As we’re learning from the tectonic shifts taking place between new-media news groups and services and the established media guarded fiercely by groups like OLCA, is that we are on the offense while they are crouching in defense.
The Ohio press room redoubt that is OLCA may have won this small skirmish – but far from being over, the larger battle has been joined and will continue.
John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.
If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: email@example.com