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Setting the agenda, and reporting it

UNDER THE DOME: Rep. Steve Harrelson legislates and reports - simultaneously.
  • UNDER THE DOME: Rep. Steve Harrelson legislates and reports - simultaneously.

It's the end of the House Judiciary Committee meeting and I'm waiting on the chair, Rep. Steve Harrelson, for an interview. “Hold on,” he says, “I just have to post what happened.”

I had long since given up on breaking any news myself out of the meeting. The representative from Texarkana would have it up on his “Under the Dome” blog by the time I made it out of the Capitol and back to my car about two blocks away.

The day before, Harrelson had posted, before any other news outlet in town, who-voted-how on the now-infamous resolution congratulating Barack Obama on winning the presidency.

There's nothing new about blogging Arkansas legislators. Harrelson's been at it since 2007. Speaker of the House Robbie Wills of Conway has become a prolific blogger, opened a Twitter account and instituted audio reports.  Other legislators have begun blogs as well. But Harrelson not only feeds his blog nearly every day, he prides himself on breaking stories, whether it's reporting hallway chatter, or live-blogging the action from committee meetings or the floor of the House.

In blurring the lines between journalist and public official, Harrelson has also introduced a new wrinkle in the way Arkansans do politics.

Within minutes after the Obama votes were posted on the web, Rep. Linda Tyler of Conway  got an e-mail from one of her constituents asking why she did not vote on the bill (in effect the same as a “no” vote because the resolution needed 11 votes for approval).

“I think it's healthy because it helps us to keep in touch with our constituents and have timely, in-the-moment communication with them,” Tyler says.

But Tyler said that instantaneous communication also puts pressure on legislators to respond immediately, something they do not always have time to do.

Harrelson agrees with that assessment, but says widespread use of the Internet in general, not just blogs, has obliged lawmakers to stay in better touch with the folks back home.

“There's definitely an increase in participation from readers,” he says. “They want to know how we voted, but they also want to know why we voted that way. So there's an obligation to respond quickly.”

But there's a bigger issue at play here. It's no secret that public officials use the press to achieve political goals and manipulate that coverage when possible. Joseph McCarthy would put out press releases in the late afternoon, reducing the chances that a denial would run in the same story as his accusation. Harrelson is no McCarthy, but his blog is widely read by other legislators and has the potential to “set the agenda” for those at the Capitol.   

“I think for those of us within the system here, Harrelson's blog is obviously the go-to place,” says Rep. David Powers of Hope. “Sometimes I get information from his blog before I've heard it in the hallways.”

If Under the Dome really is the “go-to” place for lawmakers, then Harrelson is in a position to influence what issues his colleagues think about and maybe even how they think about them. Still, he says, he tries to keep his posts fair.

“What I think people need to realize is that I try to keep it as unbiased as possible, but this is also coming through the lens of a participant in the legislative process,” he says.

Deciding what to include in his blog posts — and what to leave out — is something that takes some thought, Harrelson says. He's had to learn the rules about what qualifies as on and off the record, not only to protect the confidential conversations with colleagues, but to make sure he remains effective as a legislator.

“If people aren't able to talk to me about issues that are important to them, then they may not be willing to help me on legislation that I want to push.”  

For conventional news reporters, rules of fairness and objectivity are generally understood. But although he's breaking news, Harrelson is not a conventional news reporter. His name on the state's website has a (D) beside it. If it is true that “official sources” use the media to further their political objectives, then the representative from Texarkana finds himself in a unique position to use himself.


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