Wick Communications

Access denied

In First Amendment on 17 Nov 2016 at 5:07 pm


Renée Jean, energy editor for the Williston Herald, has written a series of extraordinary stories about the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline dispute in North Dakota. One of the most interesting, for my money, is her first-person telling of the obstacles to reporting the story. It appeared earlier this week online and in the print edition.

The pipeline story is big news everywhere, of course. A company called Energy Transfer Partners proposes a 1,172-mile pipeline capable of transporting 470,000 gallons of sweet crude every day from North Dakota to Illinois. Proponents say it would be safer than transport by rail and truck and benefit business in the Bakken oilfields and beyond. They might even suggest that it is part of the infrastructure necessary to make the nation more energy independent.

Opponents counter that it is an inherent risk to the water supply throughout the region. They say it destroys burial sites and other places that are culturally significant for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which has sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for permitting the project.

As I’m sure you are aware, the currently stalled construction has spawned protests across the United States. Meanwhile, I’m told the vast majority of people in the Bakken region support construction.

Tensions are high and it’s a volatile situation for reporters like Renée. …

In one of her latest stories, she chronicles the way various groups seek to control access for journalists. The police and other authorities have their own boundaries and spokesmen and are not always forthcoming. The company itself has an obvious agenda and interest in painting only a rosy picture. And it turns out the protesters — a loose confederation of environmentalists, Native Americans and other activists — have set their own rules for journalists. Renée says she was asked to show her driver’s license and repeatedly asked for her own take on what she saw. Police, company officials and protesters had rules for what she could photograph, where she could go, and with whom she could speak.

No wonder folks on all sides think we are being managed? We are being managed.

I have long maintained that I want “official” credentials only when absolutely necessary. My theory is that if some entity gives us credentials, it can just as easily take them away. That means we are beholden to the issuing organization and if we run afoul of the organization, whatever access we get will be denied. That has a chilling effect on what we write and the kinds of stories we feel free to tell.

For instance, I have politely declined official credentials from local police agencies in the past. That’s because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is all the press credential I need from the state. There is nothing a local police agency can require of you to get a “credential.” I know many state and local police agencies issue press passes. I don’t want one.

Having said that, I recognize that private property and private events are different. We routinely get credentials for sporting events. The local concert venue has a right to decide who gets in and what they see. And I understand that sometimes its better to go along and get along. I was once credentialed by the White House and didn’t try to flash my copy of the First Amendment at the press office.

It would have been interesting if Renée had declined credentials from the protesters. Folks were under no obligation to speak with her, of course, but neither does she have to oblige by their rules for covering what she sees.

I’m not being critical in the least. Her coverage has been wonderful and thorough. By any standard, driving five hours to cover hostilities like this is hazardous, rugged work. Williston Herald readers are enriched immeasurably by her work on this story.

I hope she keeps it up and fights for access where she can.


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