With the inauguration days away, Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner’s team is taking unusual steps in how it’s handling media access to some events — steps that two longtime political experts called unprecedented.
The Rauner campaign on Thursday released a schedule of a series of events in advance of and on the day of the Republican’s swearing-in, which takes place on Monday.
For certain events, including a Sunday inaugural dinner and reception in the Hilton’s Grand Ballroom in Springfield, the Rauner camp noted media access would be limited, saying “Associated Press will provide print coverage.”
When a Sun-Times reporter sent an email asking what “limited media” meant and whether all media outlets were to be shut out except the AP for those events, Rauner’s spokesman responded that they could “make them closed entirely.”
“You are members [of AP] aren’t you? There is NOT ENOUGH ROOM. This is the thanks we get for opening events that previously have never been opened before,” wrote Rauner’s transition spokesman Mike Schrimpf. “We can make them closed entirely if you prefer that instead.”
When called and asked to clarify his statement about entirely closing events, Schrimpf said: “We are committed to running the most open inauguration in recent history and have an unprecedented number of events with media access that allows us to do that.”
The restricted media access comes after a long and brutal campaign in which Rauner’s team developed a reputation for trying to exercise tight control. In one case, journalism students from Columbia College who traditionally visited candidates on the stump were turned away from a Rauner news conference and told they could not attend other events because only members of the working press were allowed.
At the close of his campaign, Rauner’s team limited the number of questions reporters could ask to two at events just before the Nov. 4 election.
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said he had never heard of an incoming governor controlling access in the way Rauner plans to do.
Yepsen, who covered inaugurations in his previous 35-year career as a reporter, said there’s a danger in a politician selecting his or her own media outlet for coverage as well as raising the idea of cutting off access when a news outlet questions the arrangement.
“I think Rauner and his team are wrong in the way they’re handling this,” Yepsen said. “It’s too bad because Bruce Rauner doesn’t need to get off on a bad foot with news organizations. He has a job of leading the state. One way he needs to do that is through the media. He needs good cooperation from them.
“We’re not in the campaign anymore. There’s really nothing to hide here on the part of these events. I don’t know what the big deal is. It makes sense to me that they ought to back up and say ‘hey, let’s rethink this.’ ”
Yepsen said typically if there are space limitations for events the media is asked to select a representative and then rotate between media outlets for pooling purposes.
Schrimpf said all major news organizations subscribe to AP.
“The danger in this is they look like they have something to hide and they really don’t,” Yepsen said. “We’re talking about a cocktail party here. There’s no reason for access to be limited unless there’s a space problem. It’s hard to understand how there’s even a space problem.”
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the response from team Rauner doesn’t send a good signal as he is to enter office.
“It just seems to indicate a real desire to control situations and to control information, and that doesn’t necessarily bode well for how open the administration is going to be.
“They get to decide what’s public and being able to wall certain things off to a certain extent, you’ve just have to wonder how this is going to carry over,” Redfield said.
“The response is troubling that you’ve got a certain sense of arrogance and entitlement that is: ‘we’ll decide what’s public and what’s news.’ At some point you’ve got to stop campaigning and start governing. Part of governing is building relationships with news media and having mutual respect.”