By Jim Angell, Managing Editor
Angell was the president of the Wyoming Press Association for 20 years
At first blush, the idea of a publicly financed news outlet barring the public from a debate featuring candidates for one of Wyoming’s top offices seems laughable.
Especially when it come from as respectable an outlet as Wyoming PBS, a long-time vocal advocate of transparency in government.
But, I guess, when you get too used to taking those federal dollars, you start behaving like the federal government.
“Closed because of security concerns.”
“You really don’t need to know that information.”
“We’re withholding that pending an internal investigation.”
“To ensure the safety of the candidates, the debate is closed to the public and the press.”
That last one came from Wyoming PBS General Manager Terry Dugas, in an announcement explaining why the public and the media will be locked out of next week’s congressional debate in Riverton.
I spent 20 years of my life fighting to convince state and local governments to keep their proceedings and documents open to the public, the very people who pay for EVERY SINGLE THING that those governments do.
To have to stand toe-to-toe now with the very people who often stood with me in this battle just makes me sad.
There’s no room here for fiery rhetoric. Just a resigned shake of the head that PBS, probably on orders from someone else, is closing public access to the congressional debate.
Now, for someone interested in politics, there is nothing more informative than being able to watch a candidate being quizzed by knowledgable members of the media on important policy points. To see how they react to difficult, complex questions. To see whether they pause, deflect, obfuscate or offer well-considered answers on the important questions of our day.
Watching on a livestream simply isn’t the same. Nor is it meant to be. It’s a remote viewing of a television event. Informative, but lacking the in-person context.
Media coverage after-the-fact will be good, but it can’t capture the small items, the candidates trading glances, hand gestures, or any of the post-debate chatter that occurs.
Just as a reminder, Wyoming PBS is largely a publicly funded organization supplemented in part with grants from private companies. In Wyoming, we hold our publicly funded institutions to a pretty high bar when it comes to transparency. Our own Supreme Court says public entities should operate “in a fishbowl.”
It’s a shame Wyoming PBS isn’t following the same rules it encourages others to follow although, again, it’s probably at someone else’s behest.
Will Cowboy State Daily cover this event anyway? Absolutely. It’s our job to keep you informed of what is happening in the election so you can make an educated decision when you cast your vote. Wyoming PBS’ decision to lock out the media, except for those asking questions, should make no difference in any outlet’s coverage plans.
But unless and until Wyoming PBS can come up with a better explanation for this closure than “it’s for safety,” I’m going to be mighty disappointed.