The 18-pound ball

Another person said it to your correspondent the other day and it’s been said often enough that it merits a response.

“Do you think the Senate waited until you were gone before kicking the reporters off the Senate floor?”

While the question is flattering, it’s discomfiting. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t kind of nice to hear but the answer I’ve given is not “yes,” and here’s why.  First, don’t forget that Virginia Young of the Post-Dispatch also has retired and she would be no happier about the situation than I am if she were still there.  Second, Senate leader Ron Richard is a bowling alley owner—and sometimes he seems to use an 18-pound ball when a 14-pounder would do.

Senator Richard, the first person ever to serve as Speaker of the House and President pro Tem of the Senate, shares a deep passion for the Missouri Capitol with your correspondent.  We’ve often talked about the need to restore it and preserve it.  He is also an important supporter of the State Historical Society, which is important (and that’s an understatement) to more Missourians than realize it including this author.   But to suggest that he waited until I was gone and/or Virginia was gone before kicking our press corps colleagues into a side gallery is probably a misconception.

But it is the wrong thing to do and if the Missourinet seat at the press table was still my home, I think there might have been some frank discussions.

This entry is more “inside baseball” stuff than usual.  But it might give readers a little more insight into a small part of the way the legislature and the press corps work or should work.

As I understand it, this situation grew out of a time when Senator Brian Nieves took off on one of his tantrums that was a personal attack on another office-holder—not a Senator—that went on and on and that Nieves appeared to feel was particularly clever.   Senator Richards’ predecessor, Tom Dempsey, heard it in his office and quickly went to the chamber where he told Senator Eric Schmitt, who was presiding at the time, that he should have called Nieves to order.  One of the reporters at the press table put something on Twitter about the Dempsey-Schmitt discussion and another member of the press corps picked up the message and re-tweeted it.

Now, understand that your observer thought well of Dempsey and found him a thoughtful leader of the chamber.  He recognized that his position was one that represented all senators, not just those of his party, and he often served as a mediator in touchy situations.

I had forgotten until colleague Phill Brooks reminded me recently that Dempsey talked to the two of us about his concern that the Twitter message violated an unwritten Senate protocol that certain conversations in certain places are private.  He wondered what to do about the matter and I don’t think Phill and I gave him much of an answer, certainly not a satisfactory one.  We did say that we weren’t aware of the situation and would not have tweeted about it if we had been. I don’t even remember if Dempsey mentioned the name of the reporter involved.

It’s been almost two years since this incident and I think it’s been mishandled from the start on both sides.   The result is an unfortunate escalation that need not have happened.   It is probably too late, unfortunately, to roll back the situation, but here’s the way things should have been handled—at least from this perspective.

First, Twitter and the emphasis on immediate communication (which is not necessarily reporting—a distinction that can be discussed later, I suppose) is a pit waiting for people to fall into and we hear stories about that almost every day, don’t we?

As a reporter who had, and still has, a lot of distrust of the idea that any system that capitalizes on the human tendency to blurt out whatever is on the mind is good, I would not have communicated the Dempsey-Schmitt discussion because there was a time to explain the incident’s significance when more than 140 characters are involved.  Dempsey was always approachable by the press corps, I think, and the incident was not so earth-shaking that public distribution of its occurrence could not wait until Dempsey could be asked about it.  He probably would have tried to sidestep it because it was an internal issue and because of the idea that senators should speak courteously of one another, at least on the record.   But he should have been asked about it instead of becoming the subject of instant communication.  Even if he had not wanted to talk about it, he would have been alerted that the incident was a story.

What Phill and I should have told him (and maybe we did, I don’t remember) was that it would be appropriate for him to express his concerns directly to the reporter and discuss between the two of them what Dempsey saw as the problem and how that sort of thing could have been handled differently. I don’t think he would have talked the reporter out of doing the story, but the discussion would have been good for both.

There have been opportunities since then for the Senate leader to raise the issue with reporters—the Senate majority information person has been good about getting the press together with the leaders every Monday afternoon, at least, and often more frequently as needed.  Understanding the relationship between the press and senators has never been something discussed before the start of legislative sessions.  It would have been useful and might be useful in the future when legislative leaders hold pre-session news conferences, not a matter of instruction but a matter of understanding operations of both sides.

But throwing an 18-pound ball (banishment to the gallery) instead of a 14-pound ball (discussing the relationship between press and legislator) is the wrong way to go.   The result is that the Senate is spending a bunch of taxpayers’ money it doesn’t need to spend, the press corps is antagonized, and an opportunity for a good working relationship has been lost.

And that, for whatever it is worth, is how the situation should have been handled.

Before departing, let it be noted that this is being written by someone who has not been part of the press corps for about fourteen months and is relying on information about the triggering incident and the resulting effects from others.  We’ll be glad to correct misimpressions about the circumstances if we have misunderstood them. But what this entry indicates, if it indicates anything, is that impressions made in the moment and lingering resentment that festers through time can produce unfortunate results that don’t really help anything.

Sometimes the brute force of an 18-pound ball is less useful than the better technique that goes with one weighing only 14.

Let me know what you think......