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William Rivers Pitt | GOP Wants Pay-to-Play Press Coverage: Bad Idea

News services have never before been required to pay for access to a convention.

The 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. The Republican National Committee has announced its intent to charge the media for access to the upcoming convention in Cleveland. (Photo: Think Out Loud / Flickr)

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A friend of mine worked for one of the Democratic presidential campaigns back in 1972, and was charged with handling the press corps. He found himself one day in Decatur, Alabama, for an event. Decatur at that time was a dry town, no booze or beer anywhere, and the reporters were pissed. My friend grabbed another staffer, piled into a car and raced across the river to Huntsville, which wasn’t dry. They filled the trunk with all the beer and ice that would fit, bombed back to the hotel where the reporters were housed, and filled a bathtub with the spoils of their foray. Basically, they broke the law to please the press. The press was pleased, and then they were drunk, and then the whole show rolled on the next day.

I am no fan of the modern “news” media. They are, in the main, stenographers for the rich and powerful. This holds especially true for the TV “news” people, who invite high-ranking political officials to appear on their Sunday morning shows and ask them squishy softball questions, because they want to make sure those officials come back when invited again.

The “news” media in the United States have gotten a lot of people killed in Iraq and elsewhere by playing that particular game in the name of advertising profits and ratings, and it is a cancer on the body politic. Let’s have Dick Cheney on again and ask him about his favorite color, because our advertisers need to sell Viagra during the commercial breaks.

I am, however, not a fool. The US press may be terrible and vapid and greedy, but they exist. Mark Twain once said, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Alternate version: Don’t piss off the people tasked to tell your story when you’re running for office, because they will burn you down. That’s why these clowns get coddled. It’s the oldest story in politics: If the news media decide they don’t like you, pack your bags, because you’re done. That’s why staffers do things like smuggle beer into hotels to keep them happy.

So when the announcement came that the Republican National Committee (RNC) intends to charge the media – wire services, newspapers, online publications and magazines – a $150 fee for the privilege of covering the GOP convention in Cleveland, I was frankly astonished. News services have never before been required to pay for access to a convention; I covered the 2004 Democratic convention with a whole crew in tow, and we didn’t have to drop a nickel to get in the door.

The RNC, of course, deployed its standard attempt at the Jedi Mind Trick. “There is no access fee,” said spokeswoman Alison Moore once word got out. “For outlets who prefer a special work station, there will be a minimal charge for construction at a fraction of the actual cost.” Yeah, so, that’s a fee. The “special work station” is a seat on the press stand. It’s the ability to be in the room.

It’s not the money. Powerhouse organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press can sneeze out $150 and not even notice. It’s the principle of the thing; it’s pay-to-play for a public event, an unprecedented requirement for access, an imposition upon the people who buy ink by the barrel. The reporters won’t have to shell out the cash at the door, but the indignation over this will run from the top down and, I suspect, set the tone for the manner in which the convention is covered.

I could be wrong, of course. This could be the New Normal in convention coverage, and maybe even a trend-setter. Who knows? Maybe the White House press corps will have to cough up $20 to get into the press room someday. Maybe reporters will have to slip a sawbuck to the congressman they want to interview. The mainstream “news” media is, after all, a corporate enterprise … and money talks. They know that better than anyone.

I think, however, this will not sit well. I think it’s a wrong-foot by this party that can’t seem to get out of its own way. As I said, the mainstream “news” media are corporate entities, an arm of the rich and powerful … but a dog will sink its teeth into its master if it is abused. The media may be a pampered cur, but they have very sharp teeth.

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