Gov. Mike Huckabee’s office confirmed last week that it removed Arkansas Times reporters from a media e-mail list to which it sends news releases, press conference notifications and other information.
He argues that we do not have a right to the service, and with characteristic grace, he is accusing us of “whining” and being “lazy,” because he claims the e-mailed content is also available on his state-financed website.
Here is why Huckabee is wrong, and why other news organizations should not hesitate to join us in protesting his action:
It is an obvious retaliation. Huckabee started this fight by going out of his way to remove the Arkansas Times (and, as best we can tell, only the Arkansas Times) from a list it already was on. If the list is not important, and we can obtain the same information elsewhere, why does it exist in the first place? And what is the point of removing us if it is not intended as a form of punishment?
In reality, he knows his action has a real effect. Our product is news, which derives its value from timeliness. In this new age of Internet-based media, including blogs and e-mail updates, competitiveness is measured in minutes. The news organization that receives an e-mail directly from the governor’s office will be first with the story. When the governor calls a last-minute press conference, we probably won’t know about it. That not only means we won’t be able to cover it, but also that we won’t be able to ask the kinds of questions that we uniquely may pose.
And if that is the point, it serves to intimidate others. Everyone knows Huckabee doesn’t like the Arkansas Times because of the way it covers his administration. By attempting to degrade the value of our news product, he is indirectly threatening other media organizations with the same treatment. He is saying, in effect, if you portray me unfavorably, I will try to harm your business.
In that sense, his action is an abuse of public power and resources. It would be one thing if Huckabee was a private citizen or operating a private business. But he is the state’s top public official and his press operation is funded with taxpayer dollars. That limits his discretion when it comes to the administration of basic services. He doesn’t have to grant us a personal interview, but he cannot selectively deny information to organizations he does not like. The logical extension of that practice would result in news being available only through “government approved” outlets — a hallmark of totalitarianism.
And that is where it intrudes upon the First Amendment rights of this newspaper. After all, what did the Arkansas Times do to make Huckabee so angry in the first place? It has occasionally criticized his public policies in its opinion pages and reported on his questionable use of public monies. (The paper also has praised Huckabee on a regular basis.) The Times should be free to write whatever it wants about a public official without worrying about retribution via the government resources he controls.
Furthermore, as a means of justifying his action, Huckabee used his authority as governor to intentionally misrepresent what the Arkansas Times is. When the Columbia Journalism Review inquired about Huckabee’s action with his press secretary, Alice Stewart, she said the governor’s office doesn’t consider the Times a “legitimate news organization” because “it describes itself as a ‘journal of politics and culture.’ ” That is simply untrue, because the Times’ front page and website clearly indicate it calls itself a “newspaper of politics and culture.” By making the false semantic distinction, Huckabee degraded his own credibility in an attempt to degrade ours.
In the end, the entire journalism community should be insulted. If the Arkansas Times is excluded for being too critical, the implication is that other media outlets are not critical enough. Does a government official get to decide the definition of a “legitimate news organization” and deny services on that basis? This is getting to be a pattern with Huckabee. A Feb. 12 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette noted he refused to be interviewed about his use of the State Police airplane because he claimed the reporter and editor repeatedly “twisted and distorted” his remarks.
Incredibly, Huckabee’s defenders assert that the Arkansas Times brought this action upon itself. Does a newspaper have to sign a loyalty oath and promise exclusively favorable coverage to have access to the same information by the same state-financed means as its counterparts?
Huckabee decided to use government resources to punish and impede the viability of a news organization that he doesn’t like because it occasionally investigates and criticizes his public stewardship. There just isn’t any good justification for such an undemocratic action, which is why Huckabee hasn’t been able to come up with one.