Some see press perks

others see necessity

Debate lingers over free space


August 04, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

In Albany, N.Y., a row of offices located in the center of the State Capitol building is reserved- free of charge - for the media, including The New York Times, the Associated Press and Newsday.

But in Tallahassee, Fla., the press building stands two blocks from the Capitol, and media outlets pay rent for the offices they occupy. Each day, reporters trudge to the legislative building to gather news.

The two scenarios illustrate the inconsistencies in how the edgy relationship between state governments and their watchdogs in the media plays out. Most reporters believe that to cover the workings of state government, they need literally to stay close to those in office. Close, but not too close: Journalists are supposed to maintain independence from any influence, be it government, special-interest group or corporations. And they're not supposed to accept favors from anyone.

In Maryland, where news organizations don't pay rent for their State House offices, the relationship between government and media is receiving particular scrutiny this summer. In late June, Maryland General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford announced that reporters would be evicted from the State House by July 15 to make way for extensive renovations to water pipes. That deadline has since been indefinitely delayed, as House Speaker Michael E. Busch and State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have challenged Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s authority to decide unilaterally how to distribute space on the Capitol grounds.

Nonetheless, the administration's move triggered an outcry. The Associated Press called for a reconsideration. The Sun editorialized: "Mr. Ehrlich's disdain for the media and the ham-handedness of his actions would be amusing if they weren't an assault on the general public."

But some media critics questioned whether journalists should receive assigned space in the State House at all. At the very least, these observers ask, shouldn't for-profit media companies pay rent for the offices?

"It may be time for the media to give up the perk it's had for all these decades," said former Sun editorial writer Barry Rascovar, now a public-relations consultant who contributes commentary to the Gazette newspapers and WYPR-FM. It is not clear, he said, why "a profit-making operation such as the Washington Post or the Tribune Company" - owner of The Sun -"should be accepting free office space from the subject they cover in such detail."

By paying even a nominal fee, he added, the media could avoid the appearance of being beholden to the government.

In the Annapolis State House, the media pay for their phone and fax lines, but they do not pay rent or contribute toward the costs of cleaning or utilities such as energy, heating and air conditioning.

The Sun also receives free office space in one other government facility: the Edward A. Garmatz federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore, according to a review conducted by newsroom management. And in other public buildings and sports arenas, such as the U.S. Senate and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, The Sun shares free space in press galleries and press boxes.

Some journalists, including The Sun's top editor, acknowledged discomfort as the proposed State House eviction confronted them with the details of covering state government.

"I think it would be cleaner for us to pay rent at the State House," said Timothy A. Franklin, editor and senior vice president at The Sun. "I don't want to be at the whim of any individual politician or political party who, for whatever reason, may not want us to be there."

But proximity is key, said Franklin, who covered the Illinois legislature for more than four years for the Chicago Tribune. "I can't tell you how many stories you get from being in the building and seeing meetings that are transpiring - by walking the corridors and being able to ask public officials about questions of the day."

An Ehrlich spokesman said the governor has no interest in charging media outlets for work space. "They are providing a very important service and should not be forced to do that," said Henry Fawell, the spokesman.

Most media don't pay rent, according to a survey conducted last month by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In 19 of the 24 states for which press officials replied, media organizations received work space in state Capitol buildings without charge. In three states, no room was given. In the others, the media paid.

"The reason we exist in many cases is to be a government watchdog - and access is a vital part of that," said William E. N. Hawkins, executive editor of the Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., who covered state legislatures in Maryland for the Evening Sun and in Pennsylvania for the Harrisburg Patriot-News. "We're there to report to the public."

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