Gov. Pete Ricketts has amended his new media credentialing procedure amid complaints that it may violate the free press guarantees of the U.S. Constitution and serve as a tool to exclude journalists with whom he disagrees.
Taylor Gage, the governor's communications coordinator, released the new application for credentials last week and encouraged media members to apply via the new process.
"We believe that it is a fair process for all involved," he said in a letter.
Representatives from Nebraska news outlets, while saying the revised application is an improvement from one released a month ago, continued to express concerns about some of the questions posed by the governor's office.
Randy Essex, the Omaha World-Herald's executive editor and vice president of Media of Nebraska, said that one question, which asks if a journalist also writes editorials, is irrelevant.
A representative of the Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said that questions about revenue sources, membership in trade associations and editorial writing have nothing to do with the governor's concerns regarding "operational limits" and "security reasons," which were the stated reasons for the new process.
Sarah Matthews, a lawyer for the Reporters Committee, also wondered about the need for a media outlet to provide a link to its reporting.
"I hope this does not mean that credentialing decisions will be made on the basis of the perceived viewpoint of an applicant’s reporting, as this would violate the First Amendment," Matthews said.
Essex said that Media of Nebraska "will monitor implementation of this process with great interest and watchfulness that the office makes its decisions consistent with First Amendment principles.”
The controversy was sparked in early April after the World-Herald reported that an online news outlet, NOISE Omaha, had been denied access to the governor's press briefings at the state Capitol and blocked from posing questions to Ricketts via email.
Gage, in the story, said that NOISE (which stands for "North Omaha Information Support Everyone”) was rejected because it was an "advocacy organization funded by liberal donors.” He also said NOISE was unlike traditional media outlets that normally attend the briefings.
After two journalism professors, a joint World-Herald/Lincoln Journal Star editorial and Media of Nebraska — which represents the state's newspapers and broadcast media — questioned the denial, the governor's office issued a formal policy for obtaining access to Ricketts' news briefings at the state Capitol. No written policy had existed prior to that.
Media of Nebraska responded by advising its members not to apply, saying the credentialing process created barriers to news coverage and might silence some legitimate media organizations, including NOISE.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provides legal assistance in press freedom conflicts, also weighed in. It expressed concern that the new policy appeared to provide a pretext to exclude media outlets based on their perceived political viewpoint.
A press freedom face-off was avoided over the past month as Ricketts canceled one event that would have required press credentials, and didn't schedule any others that required it. His first news event that will require credentials is now scheduled for May 24.
Recent meetings between Nebraska media representatives and Gage resulted in the new credentialing application.
Some questions on the new application form were changed, and it now acknowledges that media outlets that publish exclusively online can apply.
Among other changes: an application no longer must include a notarized letter, and it now asks if a media outlet is funded by grants or charitable contributions, a nod to an emerging trend of nonprofit journalism.
Gage, in a letter last week, also told media members that if an organization is denied, he will spell out the reason. NOISE Omaha representatives had complained that they'd never received an explanation, prior to the World-Herald story, for why they were blocked from media briefings.
Since the new credentialing form was released last week, reporters with the World-Herald and Journal Star, the state's two largest newspapers, have applied.
On Friday, the founder of NOISE Omaha, Dawaune Lamont Hayes, said that NOISE reporters will apply, though he has no confidence that they will be approved by the governor.
"You've already said you don't like us," he said. "Just let us in. We're just here to report. The fact that we have to fill out a piece of paper that's still subject to your decision-making is disheartening."
Gage said that NOISE's application will be considered once it's received.