Free Capitol News Illinois

Shining light on lawmakers

There is nothing like watching the Illinois General Assembly.

Whether floor debate or witnesses testifying before the Agriculture, Environment and Energy Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, it's riveting stuff, which explains why former Gov. Bruce Rauner once dreamed of projecting Capitol proceedings onto a giant screen across the street from the governor's mansion as part of a destination park that never got built.

For some folks, keeping an eye on lawmakers is duty, not recreation. This includes journalists who toil to inform on such matters as taxes, politics and shenanigans. Who's a journalist can be in eye of the beholder. Sometimes, the only beholders that count are folks being watched.

Founded in 2019, Capitol News Illinois, with three full-time reporters, has more folks embedded than any other news organization granted space in the legislative press office. It's a wire service, essentially, for papers that otherwise could not afford to publish state government news. They go to press conferences. They attend committee hearings.

They do what most Statehouse reporters do, except scrutinize from House and Senate floors, where they are not allowed.

Capitol News Illinois has requested floor credentials granted to journalists from the Associated Press, the State Journal-Register and myriad other media outlets. Lawmakers have refused.

Credentials count.

General Assembly junkies can watch online but cameras aren't always focused on what's most interesting. Who's whispering to whom in aisles and at desks while sausage cooks? Consider a January photo of Rep. Chris Welch, soon-to-be speaker, huddled with 16 female colleagues, far from the podium, after his long-ago arrest on suspicion of domestic violence resurfaced. Reporters with credentials can't wander the floor, but they can ask a page to summon a lawmaker to answer questions about what's going on.

"You wouldn't be able to tell it from our work, but it does make it a little more difficult," says Jeff Rogers, Capitol News Illinois editor and director of the Illinois Press Foundation. "It hasn't helped us."

Legislative leaders have denied access on grounds that Capitol News Illinois is affiliated with an interest group, the Illinois Press Association, which employs lobbyists. Among other things, the IPA lobbies to keep laws requiring that legal notices be printed in newspapers.

It's OK for lawmakers to moonlight as lobbyists, but reporters aren't supposed to be tools of outfits with business before the legislature. Legislative leaders have drawn parallels between Capitol News Illinois and a defunct news arm of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. Lawmakers six years ago won a court fight to deny credentials for the institute's alleged news operation. It's a matter of consistency, Steve Brown, then spokesman for former House Speaker Michael Madigan, wrote in a 2019 letter denying credentials to Capitol News Illinois.

"(I)t is my opinion that you and the others with Capitol News Illinois are not representatives of the press but representatives of an advocacy organization," Brown wrote.

Capitol News Illinois is a creature of the Illinois Press Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the Illinois Press Association. The policy institute had a similar relationship with its news arm. That's where similarities end. For one thing, we don't know who funds the policy institute, which doesn't disclose donor names. We know that the Robert R. McCormick Foundation carries Capitol News Illinois, which also conducts fundraising drives familiar to any NPR fan.

News can be like pornography: To paraphrase the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it. There are no Larry Flynts or Hemingways or Ayn Rands at Capitol News Illinois. There is something rarer, these days: Straight news stories, with few adjectives and short sentences. That's why more than 440 papers, including Illinois Times, have published their stuff. You can trust it.

Hope arrived during the lame duck session, when the House, but not the Senate, granted access that hasn't extended to the current session. A request now pends before the Senate.

Since we're talking access, should we emulate Arkansas and put videos of proceedings on the General Assembly's website? Lots of legislatures do. You can watch Missouri lawmakers discuss health care and taxes on the Show Me State's legislative website, where videos of committee hearings and floor sessions from way back are available. Not in Illinois. Proceedings are livestreamed on our legislature's website, and that's it: If you don't subscribe to blueroomstream.com, a website run by a company that archives recordings of hearings and floor sessions – subscriptions cost between $100 and $300 per month – you have to request recordings of committee hearings and floor sessions.

"This live session video/audio broadcast is the property of the Illinois General Assembly," the House warns on the legislature's website. "Any use of this broadcast without the prior written consent of the Illinois General Assembly is prohibited. (T)he proceedings will be recorded and archived on digital video disc (DVD) by the House Clerk. Copies may be obtained on DVD from the Clerk for a fee. Unauthorized duplication of these recordings is prohibited."

The Freedom of Information Act says this:

"The General Assembly hereby declares that it is the public policy of the State of Illinois that access by all persons to public records promotes the transparency and accountability of public bodies at all levels of government. It is a fundamental obligation of government to operate openly and provide public records as expediently and efficiently as possible in compliance with this Act."

It doesn't seem consistent.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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