The Albany Democrat Herald issued an interesting editorial on Michelle Obama’s recent visit and commencement speech at Oregon State University in June. Members of the local press covered the event but it came with heavy security, restrained access and even mandatory escorts to the bathroom. Is this another sign of living in the age of terrorism or just Homeland Security overkill?
Albany Democrat Herald Editor: [R]eporters covering the affair were confined to a couple of rows in a section of the bleachers and told to stay there. She had been planning to mingle with the crowd, gathering reactions after our first lady, Michelle Obama, had finished her address. Realizing that this would not be allowed, she did the best she could by talking to people before the program began and after the whole thing was over, several hours later. The print scribes were told that if they wanted to get out of their seats to get a snack or to go to the restroom, they would need an escort. The video reporters were similarly assigned a spot and told not to move.
This, by the way, after reporters and photographers planning to cover the Obama speech had to submit, in advance, their names, birth dates, Social Security numbers, and whether they had been born in a foreign country.
Presumably all this was part of the precautions taken to make sure that no members of the press intended to harm the first lady or presented some other risk.
Several thousand other people were present on that occasion, getting degrees, or watching relatives and friends get their degrees, or just because they had obtained one of the one thousand extra tickets given out to the public. If any of them were told not to move from their seats, it wasn’t apparent.
All of this reminded me of 2008, when Bill Clinton came through Albany for a talk at the Expo Center to promote the presidential run of his wife.
It was a Saturday, and we had someone covering the event. I went by just to take a look and stood for a while with my colleague on the platform set up for cameras in the back of the room.
Then I wandered off with the crowd, but a campaign functionary stopped me. Members of the press were not allowed to leave the platform, she said. I told her I was there as part of the audience and started walking to where the ex-president was being mobbed by the crowd.
That’s when she called over a couple of Albany cops, and they made as if to arrest me if I took another step — which, not wanting to make a scene, I didn’t do.
When presidents, ex-presidents or their spouses appear somewhere, the organs of state security — as I think they were called behind the Iron Curtain when we still had one — spring into action against people working for a living by reporting on public affairs.
I don’t know if they think that reporters represent a special danger of violence or trouble, or if so, what gave them that idea. None of the American assassins or would-be assassins — from Booth to Hinckley Jr. — were members of the press.
Or maybe it’s just that the handlers don’t want microphones and notebooks near where their protected persons chat with ordinary citizens.
Reporters have the choice of covering these set-piece events and being treated like slaves, or to skip them. If they watch them on TV in the office or at home, at least they don’t need an escort on a trip to the head. (hh)