by Dylan Brogan
At the height of the collective bargaining protests, when nearly all the doors at the Capitol were locked and guarded by police officers from every corner of the state, Dick Wheeler -- the unquestioned leader of the Wisconsin Capitol press corps -- ensured that members of the media were not denied access to the building.
With his signature tobacco pipe balanced between his lips, the former United Press International reporter and founder of The Wheeler Report would stand outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard entrance of the Capitol and issue temporary credentials to reporters from around the world. His vetting process was simple: He'd look you in the eyes and ask what organization you were representing. If your story sounded legitimate, he'd hand you a brightly colored business card that instantly transformed the holder into a member of the Capitol press for the day.
For decades, even full-time journalists at the Capitol only needed Wheeler's informal stamp of approval to be granted press access for an entire legislative session. He was so well regarded by his colleagues and the lawmakers he covered that Wheeler alone had the power to grant access to the Assembly and Senate floor.
Veteran Capitol reporter Steve Walters says that, in part, Wheeler could handle this task informally because there was not a huge demand from the press to cover the daily grind of the state Legislature.
But the need for a formal credentialing process emerged when WisconsinEye contracted with the Assembly and Senate in 2007 to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Legislature. WisconsinEye needed to know who was eligible to receive its signal from the press room.
"The legislators said they didn't want to be accrediting news media and asked that a correspondents association be formed," says Walters, now the senior producer for WisconsinEye. "Dick said, 'Well, all right.'"
And thus the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association was born. Wheeler's role as dean of the Capitol press was formalized as well. He served as the association's leader from the group's inception until shortly before his sudden death in 2011. The Capitol Press Room -- which Wheeler ensured was permanently reserved for the press by lobbying lawmakers to codify the room assignment into state law -- is now named in his honor.
Wheeler's involvement with the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association dwindled after the height of the 2011 protests. The association forged on but only lasted a year after Wheeler's death. In December, the group quietly dissolved, putting the Legislature in full control of credentialing the media.
"It was taking up more and more of our time," says Patrick Marley, a Capitol reporter with the Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel. "At the end of the day, the Legislature gets to say who is allowed access anyway."
Marley helped oversee the day-to-day duties of the WCCA in the post-Wheeler press room but says the recent spike in bloggers, citizen-journalists and self-identified partisans seeking press credentials at the Capitol was creating too much administrative work for the full-time journalists running the WCCA.
"2011 was a very busy and emotional year, and it got in the way of them doing their real jobs," says Walters. "With all the protests and everything, they didn't have a lot of time to do a lot of vetting of those applying to get the credentials."
Walters also says there was pushback from nontraditional media that wanted access to the Assembly and Senate floor but did not fit squarely into the WCCA's bylaws for who is eligible for press credentials at the Capitol.
"The board of WCCA really wrestled with that," says Walters. "It was a burden."
Starting this session, journalists hoping to gain access to the Assembly and Senate floor have to apply directly to the Legislature for credentials.
"The press corps decided to throw this in our lap," says Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). "We're trying to manage it right now."
The Legislature still has to officially adopt guidelines for issuing press credentials, but media are being told in the meantime to apply for passes online. According to the Legislature's website, lawmakers intend to follow recommendations "put forth by the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Board." The Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is still establishing this new advisory board.
For now, it appears lawmakers are using the bylaws passed by the old correspondents association. The bylaws say that credentials should be granted to individuals and organizations "whose core function is gathering news" and fall into one of several categories, including newspapers, wire services, paid-subscription-based information services, magazines, radio and television stations.
In addition to the rules governing conduct in the Assembly and Senate, the Legislature is also requiring journalists to follow the code of ethics established by the Society of Professional Journalists. This requires, among other things, that journalists avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest, avoid associations and activities that may damage credibility, and refuse gifts and political and community involvement if they compromise journalistic integrity.
Gatekeepers of the press
Unless the Legislature adopts new rules, the criteria for obtaining Capitol press credentials will remain largely the same except for one important distinction: The majority party that controls each chamber will now be the gatekeeper of the press.
Last week, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Fitzgerald started exercising their newfound power to approve, deny and revoke press credentials.
When journalists were in charge, deference was shown to individuals and media outlets that, on paper, might not fall neatly under the eligibility guidelines for securing official press status at the Capitol. Reporters from The Progressive, the Wisconsin Reporter and other organizations that do not shy away from partisan perspectives were all issued press credentials.
Fitzgerald, however, doesn't expect the new credentialing process to ruffle many feathers.
"Any problems in the past were identified more by the press corps than the Legislature," he says.
So far, lawmakers have been kind to journalists who may not meet the Society of Professional Journalists' strict code of ethics. Nicole Desautels Schulte, a videographer with the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative, was recently issued a Capitol press credential by the Legislature. The online news publication is the work of unpaid citizen reporters and includes contributors who have been arrested for demonstrating at the Capitol, a no-no for journalists working for established, for-profit news outlets.
On the other end of the political spectrum, the corporately funded MacIver Institute was also recently issued press credentials.
But journalists of all stripes, take note. As the Legislature warns on its website: "The Senate and/or Assembly can revoke and/or remove credentials at any time."
This article was originally published in the Isthmus.