Media bias

CN&R reporter barred from Karl Rove talk

Karl Rove

Karl Rove

Photo By Chicago Public Media via Flickr

I spent a lot of time last week doing things I don’t normally do, like tripping around the conservative blogosphere, listening to Rush Limbaugh, and reading anything I could find about Republican political strategist Karl Rove, down to the book reviews he occasionally posts on his website. This uncharacteristic behavior on my part peaked Saturday morning (May 11), when I rose with the sun, donned a polo shirt, slacks and a suit coat generally reserved for funerals and weddings, and pulled out of my driveway before 8 a.m.

My destination that morning was a breakfast with Rove hosted by Taxpayers for Jim Nielsen, a fundraising organization for the conservative state senator, at Manzanita Place, aka the Elks Lodge. For $75, attendees who’d bought tickets or RSVP’d—as I had the previous day—would receive breakfast, a signed copy of Rove’s book, Courage and Consequence, and the opportunity to hear Rove and Nielsen speak.

I left the venue less than an hour after my arrival with no signed book, no bacon-and-eggs breakfast, and not so much as a distant glimpse of Rove or Nielsen. I never even made it past the welcome desk because, as a Nielsen staffer told me, I was a member of the press and therefore not welcome to attend.

I can’t claim they hadn’t warned me. An attempt to obtain press credentials earlier in the week was met with an email from Nielsen’s office that read, “Thank you for your interest in Mr. Nielsen’s event with Karl Rove. Unfortunately, this is a private event and is not open to press.”

This was puzzling, as the function had been advertised on conservative talk-radio station KPAY. The ad advised getting tickets before they sold out, and didn’t specify the need for a special invitation, nor did it say people of certain professions—journalists, plumbers, chimney sweeps or otherwise—weren’t allowed.

The exclusion of press from a public appearance of someone as newsworthy as Rove seemed at best irresponsible, at worst possibly illegal. The organizers’ choice to charge us for the event seemed reasonable, though, so we decided to go through public channels to secure a ticket.

This was no simple feat. The link to purchase tickets online was broken (“This is a ticket to nowhere,” read the message from online service TicketLeap), and links to Taxpayers for Jim Nielsen led directly to the state senator’s homepage. A call to Nielsen’s office yielded a second number, at which a friendly man named Corey added me to the RSVP list and said all I had to do was show up with a check for $75 or cash in hand.

Not so. When I gave my name at the welcome desk, it was passed among the staff, one of whom asked me to wait and told me someone would be out to talk to me. A man named Ryan, who said he was “with Jim Nielsen,” walked directly up to me and, in no uncertain terms, reiterated the content of the email: As a member of the press, I wasn’t welcome to attend.

I pleaded my case from different angles—I’d gone through public channels and would pay; that it was ridiculous to exclude me based on my profession; that I understood the format of the event and was there simply to observe like everyone else. Then they threw a few alternate excuses into the mix—I’d RSVP’d too late, there was a miscommunication with the staffer who’d added me to the list, the house was just too gosh-darn full for one more.

But it inevitably came back to the original reason: Press not welcome. I left hungry, unable to do my job, and with a growing cabal of increasingly concerned conservatives watching me through closed glass doors.

On Tuesday (May 14), I followed up with a call to Terry Francke, an expert on journalism law and co-founder of Californians Aware, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing press and citizens access to public information.

Francke said the situation reminded him of a case from several years ago, in which an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department sued the American Civil Liberties Union after the ACLU ejected him from a conference they were hosting on police surveillance. Francke said the appeals court saw some merit in the officer’s case, which was eventually settled.

“There’s not much question that a political group can conduct private ceremonies, fundraisers or whatever,” he said, explaining these groups make events by invitation only as much as possible. “But that’s a little hard to square with media advertisements of the event.

“The bottom-line lesson is, if you’re going to say it’s by invitation only, or it’s for Republicans or Democrats only, it tends to weaken that position if you take out ads, which leaves the impression that you just want the bodies and the cash.

“The inconsistency there is at least worth a news story,” Francke ultimately advised. He also jokingly suggested that, when buying tickets in the future, I use a pen name.