This week, a federal judge in Alaska heard oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by political blogger Jeff Landfield against Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy over access to press conferences. I’ll leave the legal wrangling to the judge and the lawyers, but I have some observations based on my experience. For many years, I was a reporter in Alaska. I have also worked as a press secretary for both minority and majority organizations in the Alaska Legislature.
At first glance, this lawsuit appears to be more about Jeff Landfield and his blog than it is about getting pertinent information into the hands of the public. Consider whether Mr. Landfield, knowing that it’s the standard operating procedure not to allow bloggers to ask questions at press availabilities, worked with another reporter to get his question answered. When I reported from Homer and Dillingham, I participated in press conferences via teleconference. More often than not, the person running the press conference would not call for questions from the offsite reporters. In that case, I would sometimes work with a reporter who would be in the room to get my question asked and answered. In Mr. Landfield’s case, is it about the information he wants to gather and pass along to the public, or is it about his voice asking the question? I would hazard to guess it’s the latter.
My second observation is that Mr. Landfield’s actions make him a player rather than an observer. He’s a politician who has run for office on multiple occasions. He’s also a political operative who, just last year, ran a campaign for the Alaska Senate. I believe many of Mr. Landfield’s motives are political, which, coupled with his quest for notoriety, makes him the worst kind of journalist.
That brings me to my final observation. Before the last legislative session, a pretend journalist like Mr. Landfield would never have been allowed to get a legislative press pass and ask questions during formal press availabilities. During my four years as a legislative press secretary, I opposed every effort to disenfranchise legitimate reporters seeking the truth in favor of bloggers motivated by political ideology, advertising dollars or the almighty click. Unfortunately, that changed when Mr. Landfield was given the stamp of approval by legislative leadership with a press pass and all of the access such a pass allows. He was also allowed — some might say, encouraged — to ask questions at formal press events. I wasn’t in the room, but I bet the decision had more to do with Mr. Landfield’s political utility than his journalistic standards.
We live in a country where Mr. Landfield is free to make his living any way he chooses. He has chosen to run a political blog. Most bloggers respect their craft enough not to be tied down by the ethics and standards we ask legitimate journalists to uphold. In my experience, those who want to remain unencumbered bloggers while simultaneously claiming the legitimacy of a real journalist are often driven by a quest for celebrity or deeply held political motives. This may come across as old-fashioned, but it seems inappropriate to ask the courts to force the governor and elected leaders to treat a politician as a member of the press, with the right to ask questions and demand answers.
Politics is a dirty business, where the truth is sometimes shaped and highlighted to serve a purpose. Your politics and worldview largely determine whether you think that manipulation is justified and defensible. Journalism is also a dirty business, because the truth is easy to hide and not always easy to see. Celebrity also appears to be a dirty business, driven by ambition and attention-seeking. The last person I want informing the people of Alaska with any semblance of authority is a politician/celebrity who wants to manipulate or profit from the news to further their ambitions.
Michael Mason worked as a reporter for many years, most recently as news director for KDLG in Dillingham from 2008-2014. More recently, he was the press secretary for the Alaska House Democratic minority caucus from 2014-2016 and the bipartisan House majority caucus from 2016-2018. He is now a staffer for Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage); this commentary is his personal opinion and does not reflect that of his employer.
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