LINCOLN — A national press freedom group pressed Gov. Pete Ricketts on Thursday to adopt a “less onerous” media credentialing process that allows unbiased access to the governor’s press briefings.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C.-based group that provides free legal help with free speech issues, wrote Ricketts on Thursday objecting to his recently announced process for credentialing news organizations. The group said the policy may be used as a pretext to exclude media based on their perceived political viewpoint.
The letter comes after the Governor’s Office denied media credentials to an online North Omaha news service, NOISE Omaha, saying it was “an advocacy organization funded by liberal donors,” and not a mainstream media outlet.
The denial, and objections to it raised by The World-Herald and other Nebraska media outlets, prompted the Governor’s Office on April 15 to announce a new application process to obtain credentials.
The application asks questions about whether a media organization is financed “entirely” by advertising and subscriptions, and whether it has a “clear distinction between the editorial division … and the news reporting division.” Those questions, the press freedom group wrote, have no bearing on the governor’s stated reasons for requiring credentials, which were “security reasons” and “operational limits.”
The Reporters Committee cited federal court rulings that concluded blocking access to a media outlet based on its perceived political viewpoint violated the “fundamental” constitutional right of the media to gather information. Any restrictions on that access must be based on reasonable and neutral grounds, the Reporters Committee wrote citing a court ruling, and cannot be used as “a facade for viewpoint-based discrimination.”
“Accordingly, denying NOISE press credentials based on a belief that it has ‘liberal’ funders and thus a ‘liberal’ viewpoint unquestionably violates the First Amendment,” the letter stated.
When asked to comment, Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman and head of his strategic communications, said, “We stand ready to credential media outlets.”
Gage wrote a letter dated April 23 to Media of Nebraska, which represents the state’s newspapers and broadcast media, including The World-Herald, saying that the new media credentialing process was drawn from policies used by the Texas Legislature, the Wisconsin Governor’s Office and the U.S. Congress.
However, a review of those policies by The World-Herald found there are some key differences. None of the three ask the number and range of questions posed in the Nebraska application. In addition, the Nebraska application leaves it up to the Governor’s Office to decide whether an applicant’s answers qualify that person for credentialing.
“The (Nebraska) Governor’s Office firmly believes the application and criteria that were published last week reflect a neutral and fair approach to qualifying media organizations to cover credentialed news events,” Gage wrote in the April 23 letter.
He also noted that before issuing the new application process, he had asked Nebraska media for input, but instead got a “general letter of concern.” Gage said he remains willing to discuss the new policy.
NOISE officials have told The World-Herald that it is not an advocacy group but a small group of reporters dedicated to reporting on Omaha’s minority communities.
The Reporters Committee also rejected the characterization of NOISE as an advocacy organization, pointing out that it is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which requires “organizational independence” and that members not advocate or promote legislation, policies and government actions. The Reporters Committee also said it would be unfair to reject NOISE on the basis that it is exclusively an online outlet because increasingly, newspapers and other media are posting stories on the internet to save expenses.
The letter from the Reporters Committee was also signed by The World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal Star and the Associated Press.
“Decisions restricting press access must not be taken lightly, for the ability of journalists to gather information about government activity and report this news is of vital importance to the public,” the letter stated.
Among the contributors to NOISE Omaha, which is a nonprofit funded by donations, are the Sherwood Foundation (founded by philanthropist Susie Buffett), the Omaha Community Foundation and the Gilbert M. and Martha H. Hitchcock Family Foundation, originally established in 1945 by the family of The World-Herald’s founder.
NOISE, which stands for “North Omaha Information Support Everyone,” was established in 2018.