In late July, shortly after the launch of ALECexposed.org, Lousiana State Rep.Noble Ellington, a Republican from the state's 20th district and the national chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, spoke to NPR about the recent spate of criticism leveled at his organization. When discussing the behind-closed-doors process used to craft ALEC model legislation, Ellington dismissed concerns raised by NPR, assuring interviewer Terry Gross that the public "have an opportunity to talk to their legislators about the legislation -- so I don't see how you can get more transparent than that."
Similarly, Ohio State Senator Bill Seitz, a former "ALEC Legislator of the Year," laughed off the notion of ALEC's secrecy, telling a Cincinnati newspaper that the organization is just like any other professional association.
So it was with these assurances that I headed to New Orleans for ALEC's 38th Annual Conference. Surely as a member of the fourth estate, the good folks at ALEC would value my investigative efforts and grant me access to their back room dealings.
Boy, was I wrong.
Denied Access, Kicked out, and then Kicked out Again
After filling out my registration form to receive press credentials, I was told by an alarmed ALEC intern to wait while she fetched her boss. While I did not think she had ever heard my name, the look on her face made me think that perhaps she had heard of our new project ALEC Exposed.org. A very stern looking gentleman -- Ted Wagnon of Vox Global Communications -- arrived and told me my application would be denied on the grounds that the Center for Media and Democracy was an "advocacy organization." I asked Wagnon for a written explanation, and he handed me ALEC's Media Policy, which bears no mention of "advocacy organizations." Instead, news outlets funded by a "think-tank, political party, lobbying organization, trade association, or corporation" are forbidden from registering. CMD complies with this criteria even though most media outlets (owned by major corporations) do not.
Discouraged by by dismissal from the registration table, but not defeated, I headed to the Marriott hotel lobby to do some writing and ALEC sightseeing. I was greeted by there by a contracted security guard with no hotel affiliation, and told to leave. I asked if I was being kicked out of the hotel, to which replied that I would be removed if I didn't depart immediately. I left, a bit miffed. A quick phone call later in the day to Marriott management confirmed that I by sitting in the lobby filing a story I had not violated any of the hotel's rules, and would be welcome back in the lobby the next day.
Thursday morning I sat down once again in the Marriott lobby, where I decided to start tweeting the names of some of the ALEC corporate lobbyists. Apparently tweets like, "South Carolina Rep. Liston Barfield #spotted at #ALEC Annual Meeting. He's wearing a name tag that says 'Legacy Member'" and "Some legislators have 'New Member' ribbons attached to their name tags. Makes it easier for the corporations to track them down" drew the attention of ALEC's communications team. A senior staffer raced towards me, asked if I was Eric Carlson, and then screamed "that's him!" (See the offensive tweets here).
Marriott security guards swarmed to where I was standing, demanding again that I leave the hotel or "face arrest." I escaped before they could follow through on their other promise of taking my picture for their permanent records. My only comfort? Al Jazeera English was also denied credentials on the grounds that ALEC was not an "international" conference -- even though it has an International Relations Task Force whose priority results in the offshoring of U.S. jobs and even though international politicians were addressing the conference.
On the Trail of Public Policy on Bourbon Street
The hypocrisy of ALEC's media policy is astonishing. Not only are vast majority of news organizations owned by major media corporations (perhaps with the exception of Al Jazeera), but the majority of ALEC's conference events and even speaker are sponsored by Fortune 500 firms and trade associations. Governor Bobby Jindal was sponsored by big PhRMA. Dick Armey by Visa. I am not kidding.
While ALEC might not like independent media outlets like ours, they do love big media conglomerates and avidly promote Big Media's agenda. ALEC members like Comcast, seem worried about feisty municipalities that think broadband should be offered as a public service, so ALEC's Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act quashes the authority of municipalities to launch their own broadband services. ALEC members ATT, Verizon and now Time Warner seem worried that the FCC might stand up for consumers; ALEC's resolution on broadband regulation takes a "brave" stand against the FCC's authority to enforce Net Neutrality rules and for the destruction of the Internet as a platform for innovation, growth and the free exchange of ideas as we know it.
It is no wonder that Time Warner invited ALEC legislators and corporate lobbyists to a swank dinner at Emeril's Delmonico Thursday night. As I file this report, I am headed over there right now to get turned away from another great ALEC event by the people who say they have nothing to hide. Then I am going to explore rumors of a smoke-filled back room on Bourbon Street sponsored by ALEC board member RJ Reynolds. I just wish I were kidding.