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Gov. Ricketts creates application for media credentials amid criticism

Gov. Ricketts creates application for media credentials amid criticism

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts delivers his 2021 State of the State address to the Legislature.

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office, facing criticism over the denial of media credentials for a North Omaha news site, has created a new formal application for media to gain permission to attend the governor’s press conferences.

The three-page application, released on Thursday, comes nearly two weeks after The World-Herald reported on the denial of press credentials for NOISE Omaha, a nonprofit news website founded three years ago to cover Omaha’s minority communities.

In explaining the denial, Ricketts’ office said NOISE was “an advocacy organization funded by liberal donors,” and not a mainstream media outlet, like those typically allowed to attend State Capitol briefings by the governor.

The decision drew criticism from a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor and questions from the ACLU of Nebraska. On Wednesday, The World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star published a joint editorial that called the denial a “political decision” that “smacks of authoritarianism.”

The application released by the Governor’s Office includes a variety of questions, including whether a reporter seeking credentials is a paid employee and a full-time staffer, and whether the applicant is engaged in lobbying, “paid advocacy,” writing editorials or a member of a trade organization.

The application also includes more subjective questions, such as whether the applicant is free of “real or perceived” conflicts of interest, declines involvement in political activities, and resists pressure from lobbyists or interest groups.

The application form states that the Governor’s Office will review factors such as perceived conflicts of interest or political involvement so that an applicant “maintains journalistic integrity.”

“The Governor’s Office has long worked with media outlets to ensure that the people of Nebraska receive factual information about the business of state government,” said Taylor Gage, director of strategic communications for Ricketts and his main spokesman. “Outlets wishing to cover events hosted by the Governor’s Office for credentialed media are encouraged to submit an application.”

Dave Bundy, president of Media of Nebraska, which represents the state’s broadcast and print news outlets, expressed concern about the new credentialing process. While some credentialing process could be appropriate, he said, the application form asks for details that “have no bearing on the operation of free press.”

“Creating barriers to coverage and potentially silencing some news organizations certainly doesn’t serve Nebraskans,” said Bundy, editor of the Lincoln Journal Star.

An official with NOISE said Thursday that the website is considering whether to fill out an application form, but has doubts that the process will be fair.

Emily Chen-Newton, the interim managing editor of NOISE, said the form doesn’t spell out the exact criteria for being credentialed, but instead has a lot of “overly broad questions” that leave room for interpretation.

She added that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that provides legal services for reporters, is monitoring the case because of concern about First Amendment issues.

Jeremy Lipschultz, a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor who teaches communications law, said the governor’s new media credentialing process appears to make the governor a “gatekeeper” who decides who will have access to public information and who won’t.

The better approach, he said, would be to allow access by news organizations, and if they repeatedly violate the ground rules for participation, to kick them out.

“The governor acts as state government,” Lipschultz said. “Any time you have a government actor, you have to be mindful that the First Amendment should err on the side of open access.”

The release of the press credential form comes only a couple of days after a federal appeals court upheld the denial of press credentials by Wisconsin’s Democratic governor to reporters from a conservative think tank.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision by Gov. Tony Evers to deny credentials to a news wing of the MacIver Institute of Public Policy. Evers’ office decided that MacIver didn’t qualify because its “principle business” wasn’t “news dissemination,” but advocacy of conservative causes.

NOISE officials have said that the purpose of the three-year-old website, which has six full-time employees, is coverage of news and community events that impact North Omaha and other minority communities in Omaha.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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