Columns » Max Brantley

The illegitimate press

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The Arkansas Times last week became a news story, which I belatedly report in our print edition.

Gov. Mike Huckabee decided recently to end routine media services to the Arkansas Times. His spokesman, Alice Stewart, gave us a brief prepared statement on the decision. Neither she nor the governor would elaborate in coverage by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Stephens Media, the Associated Press and Columbia Journalism Review.

Said Stewart: “We don’t consider the Arkansas Times a news organization. By your own definition, you are a journal of politics and culture. As you said, there are hundreds of news outlets in the state and we don’t attempt to notify every one of them. The major news organizations are on our e-mail list and that’s the way it will continue.”

In fact, our cover has described us, the state’s largest weekly, as “Arkansas’s weekly newspaper of politics and culture” for 14 years. We suspect it’s precisely news reporting that’s part of the reason for the governor’s action. His work to free the killer Wayne Dumond. His unaccounted use of the State Police airplane. His appointment of political contributors to state positions. His misuse of the Governor’s Mansion expense account. His corner-cutting on ethics rules.

As it happens, we’ve been easier on the governor lately. We supported his anti-smoking initiative and his push for legislative action on the school finance case. We praised him for his hurricane response. We even predicted, correctly, that he’d be cleared in the last Ethics Commission proceeding he faced.

Our commentary, good and bad, is irrelevant. We cover news. We’ve requested public services he provides to many others. We’ve been denied those services because he doesn’t like us. A federal case in Maryland, decided against the Baltimore Sun, undoubtedly gives the governor some confidence in excluding us. There, an appellate court said the governor could refuse to grant interviews to two journalists he didn’t like. But those excluded journalists still received routine press services, including news releases and invitations to news conferences. Not us.

The governor’s office has denied our Freedom of Information requests for continuing notice of press conferences. It has denied our Freedom of Information requests for past notices that are not published on the office website. The office contends that a “working papers” exception in the FOI law shields information that would show who receives press services and whether any other news organization has been denied them.

The matter is in the hands of our lawyer. We hope it can be simply resolved. We remain mystified about the governor’s sudden punitive action, with some eight months remaining in his term. We are not surprised that Huckabee and his partisans defend his decision as appropriate treatment of a long-time critic. (Of course they’d see it differently if, say, a Bill Clinton cut off Fox News.) But we have been surprised by a couple of local journalists who seem to buy Huckabee’s notion that this is a personal fight that we somehow picked. When one newspaper is punished by a public official for its opinions, all are punished by a government that is a little less accountable. It’s that simple. After us, then who?

In faraway places, where readers know little about the governor and less about the Arkansas Times, we expect most will conclude that the governor, though he undoubtedly has reason to dislike us, has a thin skin. It’s poor armament for a candidate for president.


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