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ERIN MURPHY: Let’s make press conferences great again

August 4, 2018

Erin Murphy

What a week for media conferences.

Iowa’s governor isn’t having as many, and CNN’s White House reporter walked out on one in protest.

Let’s start closer to home.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds this week said she will not hold as many of her weekly press conferences at the Iowa Capitol in order to devote more time to her campaign.

Reynolds, who rose to governor in 2017 after former Gov. Terry Branstad was named U.S. ambassador to China, is running atop the ticket for the first time. The Republican faces Democrat Fred Hubbell and Libertarian Jake Porter in this fall’s election.

Reynolds has continued Branstad’s practice of holding a weekly media conference with Iowa Capitol reporters, a group that includes this reporter. There is nothing in the state Constitution that requires the governor to host weekly gatherings with statehouse media, but it is a vital resource for reporters to be able to quiz the state’s chief executive.

Previous governors, including Branstad, Chet Culver, and Tom Vilsack, also held the weekly press conferences. Branstad continued doing them even after having his jaw wired shut following a sledding accident, according to David Yepsen, the current “Iowa Press” host and former Des Moines Register reporter and columnist.

So the revelation that Reynolds will skip some of those weekly media conferences — made after The Associated Press noticed none were scheduled for this week and inquired as to why — caught some attention inside the Des Moines bubble.

Is it a huge deal? Look, I’m a journalist. It’s going to be difficult for me to ever say less access to a political leader, especially a governor, is a good thing.

But it’s also important to note that it’s not like Gov. Reynolds is closing off media access altogether. She publishes her public schedule each week, and at almost every event she accommodates any media members who attend and wish to ask a few questions.

And while we in the statehouse press corps may raise our eyebrows at the news of fewer Capitol media conferences, I know from experience that our colleagues across the state are barely batting an eyelash.

Those of us based in Des Moines are not the only reporters in Iowa who cover politics. Here’s hoping that any loss of Des Moines media conferences means more such opportunities for our colleagues from river to river.

It also bears noting that Reynolds is not the first Iowa governor to scale back on weekly media conferences. Culver did toward the end of his term, and Vilsack cut back when he was considering a presidential run.

If Reynolds makes the weekly press conferences truly sporadic, that may become more problematic. Yes, there is a critical campaign taking place right now. But there remains a state to run, and statehouse reporters will need the opportunity to ask questions of the state’s chief executive.

But, for now at least, democracy is not dying in darkness in Iowa.

One thing is certain: Reynolds’ media conferences have not been as rife with drama as White House press briefings with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

At one such briefing this week, CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta walked out. Acosta was dismayed by Sanders’ unwillingness to say, at Acosta’s request, that journalists are not “the enemy of the people,” as they have been labeled by Sanders’ boss, President Donald Trump. Days earlier, Acosta faced a verbal barrage from Trump supporters at a rally in Florida.

It is inarguably ridiculous that the White House has declared the press the “enemy of the people,” and it is equally ridiculous that the president’s press secretary could not muster a simple acknowledgement that reporters are not U.S. citizens’ enemies.

That said, I don’t find any value in Acosta’s attempt to force Sanders’ hand.

Of course she’s not going to dispute what her boss, the president, has said time and time again. And even if she did, it would make no difference whatsoever while the president continues to say it.

I’d much prefer the president stop calling the press “the enemy of the people.” Not because it hurts my feelings - I’ve been called much worse and have long since grown numb to such insults - but because I worry that the continued denigration of the profession will ultimately lead to violence.

Ivanka Trump says she does not consider the press “the enemy of the people.” Sarah Sanders would not say it. I don’t care about either.

I’d like to hear it from the top.

Maybe even at a media conference.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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