The Texas lieutenant governor's recent threat that statehouse reporters could potentially be arrested and jailed if their behavior is deemed "not respectful" of the legislature is being called "worrisome" and "absurd" by Texas journalists.
Several editors and reporters who have been covering the contentious abortion debate in the state Senate, which drew national interest last week during an 11-hour filibuster that derailed the legislation, said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's threats of potential arrest during an interview Friday raised concerns.
During a June 28 interview with HotAir.com's Ed Morrissey, Dewhurst said that his staff was reviewing security tapes of the Senate gallery to examine the behavior of reporters during the demonstration that occurred as Republican leaders failed to pass the bill before the legislative session expired. Dewhurst explained:
"We have reports and I have my staff taking a look at the video, the internet video that we keep, we store, on the proceedings that evening and if I find as I've been told examples of the media waving and trying to inflame the crowd, incite them in the direction of a riot, I'm going to take action against them. That is wrong. That's inciting a riot. That is wrong. And we have a provision in our rules that if people do not deport themselves with decorum, they're not respectful of the legislative process, one of our rules says we can imprison them up to 48 hours. Of course that was out of the question with that many people, but it is, we take a democratic policy seriously."
Within a day, Dewhurst's office backpedaled from the threat, claiming they had reviewed tapes of the session and found nothing worth pursuing.
Still, several journalists are speaking out with concern that such a threat was even made and the option of arresting reporters even considered.
"As I listened to this, I said, 'what the hell is this, you're going to throw us in jail?'" said Wayne Slater, a longtime political reporter for the Dallas Morning News, who posted video of the HotAir.com interview on his blog. "The first thing I thought of is there are other countries that do this, where they arrest reporters whose work they don't like or who don't report things or act in the way the majority likes. It seemed absurd to me because there are countries that do this and we are not one of them."
After Slater posted the interview video on his Morning News blog Saturday, he said Dewhurst's office called him within hours to backtrack on the comments.
"They saw it and made a decision fairly quickly that they had to pull back from this," he said. "To call and say no media did anything wrong."
But that did not stop other journalists from criticizing the original comments and worrying about what they could mean for future reporting.
"As a newspaper editor, the lieutenant governor's statement I found worrisome," said Steve Proctor, managing editor of the Houston Chronicle. "If any action were taken against a Houston Chronicle reporter, they would be defended vigorously. Any editor is going to consider that worrisome."
He said even a hint of such action can be negative to reporters' work: "I want to be able to cover the news without interruption or interference, so you are always worried when there is interference on the information."
Mike Leary, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, offered similar concerns.
"It's never a good idea to arrest people who are the messenger rather than actual participants," Leary said. "Our reporters are covering the news and illuminating other people about what is going on, something like (an arrest threat) that is not a good idea."
Dewhurst's comments followed the contentious debate on June 25 over a Republican-backed bill that would ban abortions in Texas after 20 weeks without exception for victims of rape or incest and impose strict restrictions on doctors and clinics that provide abortions. Critics say the bill is unconstitutional and designed to prevent women from having access to abortion services.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, drew national attention that day when she conducted an 11-hour filibuster to delay a vote on the bill, which was eventually shelved when the session ended. The Texas state senate is set to hold a new special session beginning today during which the bill is expected to be re-introduced
As they prepared Monday to cover the new session, reporters who had been at last week's debate offered criticism of Dewhurst's arrest threat.
"Obviously [arresting reporters] would be ridiculous," said Jonathan Tilove, an Austin American-Statesman reporter who covered the session. "It presumes there was a riot that was incited. There was no riot, there was a raucous display. And they barely even gaveled to try and restore order. If [the arrest threat] was serious, it would be a terrible thing."
Gromer Jeffers of the Dallas Morning News, a 13-year statehouse and political reporter, called the talk of arrests "surprising" and said it could have a "chilling effect" on coverage."
"The whole allegation was puzzling," he said. "When there is an event like that, I don't know any reporter who is out in a crowd trying to incite riots; we're trying to write stories, do what we do." He later added, "It would have a chilling effect if in the process of legitimately doing our job we had to worry about an elected official or other authorities threatening to arrest us."
Mike Ward, an Austin American-Statesman reporter for 25 years, also was at the Senate session and found nothing to warrant arrest.
"The press corps was just covering what was going on," he recalled Monday. "I didn't see any reporters who were inciting the crowd." He later added, "If they came in and arrested all the reporters for doing their job that would concern me. It is reporters doing their job, there's no crime there."
Brittney Martin, a Dallas Morning News reporter who covered the filibuster, echoed that view.
"We knew we didn't do anything wrong, that we were behaving right," she said. "It is outlandish the idea of arresting the media, just because we are such a staple of the floor every day, every session."
Evan Smith, CEO and editor in chief of The Texas Tribune, an online outlet that posted streaming video of the filibuster, called the claims of media bias "absurd."
"Of course it's absurd to suggest that the media would have any role in stirring up the crowd," he said. "Our job is to report. Of course it would be ridiculous."
Harvey Kronberg edits the influential Quorom Report, an insider publication on Texas statehouse coverage. He said any arrest attempt would likely draw opposition within the state Senate and spark a "senatorial rebellion."
"Senators were on the floor and know the reporters' behavior and that [claim] was completely false," he said.
Donnis Baggett, executive vice-president of the Texas Press Association and a former reporter for Dallas Morning News, also defended reporters.
"We would find it hard to believe that a member of a legitimate Texas capital press corps would have engaged in any activity that is outside the professional norm," he said. "All the time I spent there as a newsman and as a lobbyist, I've never witnessed anything of that nature."
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