My blog about the capital press corps – and how its coverage of the Alcoa story might have been influenced by UNC-TV’s Eszter Vajda – brought this response from Scott Mooneyham of The Insider/Capitol Press Association. I think it’s worth reprinting in full.
Background: I had quoted a blog by Laura Leslie about how the depleted numbers of the press corps required them to work together.
You should know that Eszter Vajda does not and has not ever worked in the leg building press room, which is where the cooperation of which Laura was referring takes place. The eight press corps member of whom she speaks does not include anyone from UNC-TV, which maybe further makes the point that I have made — you can’t be called a journalist while on the gov’t payroll.
Suggesting that Eszter influenced press corps coverage of Alcoa is akin to saying, “Look at that tail chasing his dog.” I don’t think anyone in the press corps even knew about Eszter’s “documentary” or that she was working on something associated with Alcoa until Fletcher Hartsell issued his subpoena. I and others have been writing for roughly two years on the issue of FERC relicensing and attempts by Hartsell, Gov. Perdue and Stan Bingham to block it. I’ve had many conversations with many people about it — Hartsell, Bingham, Bruce Thompson, Chuck Neely, Gene Ellis, Angie Harris, Larry Jones. I haven’t spoken once to Eszter Vajda about it.
As for press corps cooperation, I suspect what Laura means is that the people in the press room generally help each other keep track of things like votes, quickly called committee meetings to hear important pieces of legislation, and share information about bills that might have been stripped and become something new. So, for example, the video poker bill is being debated, the debate has gone on for an hour, and some press corps members have tuned out the debate temporarily to talk briefly with a lobbyist about where some other bill is going, etc. Joe Hackney says, “Further comment, further debate? The question before the House is ..” And someone who is still listening yells, “VOTE!” Or, Laura will play back on her audio equipment some quote or exchange that we all heard, but wanted to make sure we got correctly. Or, some press corps member will say, out loud in the press room, “Why are they taking up a bill to regulate funerals, now?” And someone will respond, “They stripped that. It’s a $500 million incentives bill now.”
That doesn’t mean that the press corps holds a staff meeting to decide how coverage will go for the day. It doesn’t mean that Mark Binker shares with me that he’s learned that banking commissioners are set to get bonuses, or that I share with him that I’ve found out that Fred Steen is the legislator who filed an ethics complaint alleging attempted bribery.
Laura may be right that there is more cooperation today than in 2004, but I don’t think it is something new either. I believe there is more cooperation in 2004 than there was in 2001 and more in 2001 than in 1998, when I started there. If the point of that cooperation is accuracy, what’s the problem?