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Like many activities in Wisconsin's state Capitol building, the process for issuing media credentials is complicated and comes with a lot of baggage.

A contentious political climate and the rapidly changing landscape of journalism have led to credentialing decisions that some organizations deem unfair.

The Legislature – represented by the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader – is responsible for credentialing journalists who cover the Capitol and earlier this year, it denied requests from two news organizations on the basis that they are advocacy groups. The groups appealed and, months later, are still waiting for answers.

Meanwhile, the situation has sparked discussions among members of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Society of Professional Journalists about how to address the situation.

"That criterion about advocacy you could make about any newspaper," said Robert Drechsel, professor of journalism and director of the UW-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics, noting that any organization that publishes editorials engages in advocacy.

Each session, credentialed members of the media are granted access to the floors of the state Assembly and Senate. In 2011, the volume of requests increased drastically when the Capitol was packed with people protesting Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker's controversial law stripping public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights.

For the 2013-14 session, the Legislature issued more than 500 credentials. Eight requests were denied and one credential, for the Wisconsin Citizens Media Co-Op, was revoked.

Republican legislative leaders denied a request from Union Labor News, a labor-specific newspaper published by the South Central Federation of Labor, to cover Walker's State of the State address in January. A request from The Devil's Advocates, a weekday radio show on Madison's 92.1 FM (The Mic) to cover the address was also denied, despite the show's hosts previously receiving temporary credentials.

Union Labor News managing editor Glenn Schmidt said he didn't expect a problem, since the newspaper has been publishing for nearly 80 years.

"They barred us because they said we advocate for legislation," Schmidt said. "We certainly do advocate for working people and unions. But then, it's hard to find any media that doesn't advocate for something that's before the Legislature. The Catholic Herald was there, and it lists plenty of the legislative advocacy points supported by the Catholic Church."

Union Labor News' denial has been on appeal since then — a process Schmidt described as "very mysterious and non-transparent."

Kit Beyer, communications director for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told Isthmus in February that the appeal was pending before the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization. Schmidt said his publication will file suit in federal court if the state appeal confirms the denial of access.

Neither Beyer nor Dan Romportl, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, responded to several requests for comments on this article. The two are listed as the Legislature's press credential contacts. Vos and Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, are the co-chairmen of the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization, which handles appeals.

An unwieldy task

The credentialing process is inconsistent and arbitrary, said those denied.

Where Schmidt voiced frustration with a publication like the Catholic Herald — the official newspaper of the Diocese of Madison — receiving credentials when the Union Labor News was denied, Devil's Advocates co-host Mike Crute was equally puzzled that five employees from the conservative MacIver Institute had been given access to the floor during the 2013-14 session. The conservative Wisconsin Reporter also has two credentialed reporters to its name.

Credentials have been granted to organizations with left-of-center inclinations, too. Activist Leslie Peterson received credentials for WYOU and the self-described "left-wing" Progressive Magazine has two credentialed employees.

The Legislature started directly handling press credentials during the 2013-14 session.

Prior to that, the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association, a group of journalists who regularly cover the Legislature, handled requests. The WCCA dissolved in December 2012 and the similarly-named Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Board was formed in its place.The group developed guidelines for the Legislature to use when considering whom to credential. Still, the Legislature has always had the ultimate power to grant or deny access.

But it wasn't until the protests of 2011 that the process became somewhat unwieldy.

At the height of the protests, the WCCA received as many as 80-100 requests for credentials in one day, said Jason Stein, reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and former WCCA president.

Before the Act 10 protests, anyone seeking credentials under the WCCA bylaws was expected to fit into the following categories:

  • television stations
  • radio stations or networks
  • newspapers of general circulation
  • wire services that routinely have material published in print news outlets of general interest
  • paid, subscription-based online-only news services published on a regular basis

"We wanted to have content-neutral rules," Stein said. "The feeling was that content rules would be a slippery slope."

With the flood of requests that came during the Act 10 protests, the WCCA did the best it could, Stein said, and the rules were relaxed. New media groups and non-traditional publications applied for and received credentials, some of which were granted to — and later revoked from — activists and protesters.

If the WCCA denied or revoked credentials, the denied party could first make a motion for the board to reconsider. If the WCCA upheld the denial, a second appeal could be made to the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization, which handles the entire appeals process today.

As the relationship between activists, reporters and legislators grew more contentious, the demands of the WCCA job became too overwhelming for the group overseeing the credentialing process — all while their jobs required them to report on one of the biggest political stories the state had seen in years.

"There's only so much that unpaid volunteers can do," Stein said.

The board sent a letter with credentialing guidelines to the Legislature in March 2013. WCCB secretary and Wisconsin State Journal city editor Phil Brinkman said the board's involvement in the process ends after providing the Legislature with those recommendations.

Credentialing decisions are not black and white, Brinkman said, and the recommendations issued by the WCCB are "somewhat subjective."

However, Brinkman said, "if they are going to turn someone down, they ought to tell them why they turn them down."

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council has urged the Legislature to use an expansive definition of which media should be credentialed, said Bill Lueders, president of the council.

"I don't think anyone denies that there's a need to monitor who has certain kinds of access, but my concerns are … that we would urge the Legislature to take a very expansive view, and that decision should be made on the basis of behavior, and not on ideology or affiliation," Lueders said.

Stein said there are currently organizations that have credentials, or could receive credentials, that would not have qualified under the bylaws the WCCA used when he was president. That includes a host of publications that identify with a special interest or an ideological or political affiliation.

The WCCB guidelines -- as the WCCA bylaws did -- make use of the SPJ Code of Ethics, last updated in 1996. SPJ is currently in the process of revising the code to adapt to the changing world of digital journalism. The SPJ Ethics Committee published a draft of revisions to the code that will be presented at the organization's national conference this fall, and has opened up a conversation about how to navigate ethics in the digital age.

In the meantime, the Legislature cited specific tenets of the original code in its denial of credentials to The Devil's Advocates radio show.

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Madison SPJ president and Wisconsin State Journal assistant city editor Mark Pitsch determined through a records request that The Devil's Advocates' denial was the only one that cited the SPJ code specifically. But both he and Lueders are concerned with an industry's set of professional guidelines being used as justification for denying journalists' access.

They discussed the issue during the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council's recent quarterly meeting.

Pitsch told the council that several calls to Vos' office have not been returned. His next step, on behalf of the Madison SPJ, will be to write a letter to Vos and Fitzgerald urging them not to use the SPJ Code of Ethics as a reason to deny credentials.

The guidelines are just that, members of the council said during the meeting — guidelines. Journalists are not kicked out of the profession for not following the code of ethics, and it should not be used as a tool to measure the quality of a journalist.

Looking for answers

For Crute and Dominic Salvia, co-hosts of The Devil's Advocates, the quest to cover the Legislature has been especially murky. The pair has a complicated relationship with the state, stemming from arrests made during the controversial crackdown on the Solidarity Sing Along last summer.

Though their political talk show is hosted on a left-leaning radio station and Crute himself is politically liberal, he's quick to argue that the show itself doesn't advocate a liberal point of view, or any position at all. Salvia voted for Walker in the 2012 recall election and tends to side with Libertarian positions. The show regularly has lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on the air.

"We are not, ideologically, a Progressive or Libertarian show, because there are multiple viewpoints being expressed," Crute said. "That's why we call ourselves the Devil's Advocates."

The pair had received temporary credentials before, Crute said. But their request to cover the State of the State in January was denied. They appealed the decision, and attempted to find out why they had been deemed ineligible this time.

Through contacts in legislators' offices, Crute said they were told it was because they tried to push their way into a news conference in Vos' office. Crute recalled the incident, but said it was a "complete misunderstanding." If the incident in question is the reason for the denial, Crute considers it a faux pas. He said he's contacted Beyer to attempt to make amends and wants to clear up any misunderstandings.

"If our crime was not being credentialed media but you won't credential us, this seems like a never-ending catch-22," Crute said.

‘A big, black hole'

The perceived lack of communication from the state has been, in some ways, more frustrating than the denial itself for Crute and Salvia.

"There has been no information coming from the state, and so often that has been our experience," Crute said. "I have made legitimate requests for comment. I think it is going to be their contention that we are not real press and there is no reason or rationale to respond to us."

The letter they received acknowledging their appeal said the show was denied access to credentials "pursuant to Assembly Rules incorporating the Code of Ethics as established by the Society of Professional Journalists."

It said they failed to meet two tenets from the SPJ Code of Ethics: "Avoid conflict of interest, real or perceived," and "Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility."

That letter, sent Feb. 17, was the last communication they've received regarding their appeal, Crute said. Schmidt also said there had been no update in their case.

Lueders said he wouldn't prescribe how the appeal process should operate, but he added that an appeal is only viable if it prompts an opportunity to give applicants a chance to explain and for the decision-makers to reconsider. If the applicants haven't heard anything since February, Lueders said, he can't imagine the process working adequately.

Of the appeal process, Crute said, "Basically it's a big, black hole."

Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.