A sometimes free press
By Dale McFeatters
The Freedom Forum is a nonpartisan organization that operates a fine journalism museum ― not that there's much competition in that field ― in Washington, D.C., located approximately halfway between the White House and the Capitol.
The institution is called, perhaps too cutely, the Newseum and part of the Forum's mission is a dedication "to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people."
As the man said in the TV commercial, "Not exactly."
On Wednesday night Republican candidate Mitt Romney addressed about 100 members of the Business Roundtable at the Newseum. After he spoke for 30 minutes, Romney staffers escorted the reporters present from the room and well out of earshot of the Q-and-A that followed.
A Roundtable spokesperson explained that the organization's events are generally closed to the press and off the record. And it was noted that reporters were escorted out of a similar meeting in March but that was in the White House, where a free press is considered a necessary nuisance, not in a temple to journalism embellished with a 74-foot-high engraving of the First Amendment ― you know, free press, free speech and all that good stuff.
The Newseum explained that when it rents out space for private functions the sponsors control the content and guest list but that the revenues go toward educating the public "about the importance of the First Amendment."
Media watchdog Jim Romenesko suggested the Newseum "put a clause in its room rental contracts requiring journalists be respected in the House of Journalism ― for example, not be marched out of a room when it's time for politicians to face questions."
The Newseum should take Romenesko's suggestion, but outside the question of the venue there is a more serious issue here.
Romney likes to portray himself as a nonpolitician, a businessman. But he has been active in elected politics for nearly 20 years, having run for the U.S. Senate, unsuccessfully, and governor of Massachusetts, successfully. This is his second run for the White House.
Despite that experience, he is prone to gaffes and off-the-wall remarks. Remember "all the trees are the right height"? And, "I like firing people"? And, "I'm not concerned about the very poor"?
As a result, his staff labors strenuously to keep the press at a distance, especially in unscripted situations where the candidate might inadvertently say something revealing or illuminating. Conveying the un-programmed essence of one who would occupy the Oval Office is a vital function of, yes, a free press.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer for Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).