ARIZONA — A Maricopa County Attorney’s Office spokesman has been reassigned after a heated e-mail correspondence with an Arizona State University journalism professor over whether journalism students should be allowed to cover the office’s news conferences.
Professor Stephen Doig said he first contacted Public Information Officer Bill FitzGerald after other faculty members raised concerns that the county attorney’s press conferences were not open to their journalism students. Doig said he wanted to send students from his honors class to cover the press conferences.
In response to Doig’s inquiry about how students could acquire the proper credentials, FitzGerald stated that because of security, the office could not open media conferences to “folks who are not credentialed representatives of “legit’ media.” FitzGerald also said staff members of ASU’s student newspaper and television stations were already allowed to cover news conferences.
“We are not a teaching institution,” FitzGerald stated in the e-mail. “I am not responsible for credentials … that is your problem.”
But Barnett Lotstein, special assistant to the county attorney, said there is no written policy against student journalists covering the news conferences for class assignments. Credentials, space availability and security concerns are what determine access to the press conferences, Lotstein said.
Doig maintains that a government official cannot decide who is or is not a member of “legitimate media” under the First Amendment. He told FitzGerald in their correspondence that journalists “who happened to be students” should have access to a news conference.
FitzGerald stated in one of the e-mails that he is “not compelled to admit” students despite Doig’s “half-assed” attempts to threaten him. He also called Doig a “condecending (sic) oaf” and told him to “get lost.”
Doig described FitzGerald’s response as “stupidly unprofessional.”
“I didn’t really care what he was saying about me,” Doig said. “The thing that I couldn’t accept was his apparent belief that it was wholly within the right of public officials to be able to decide who is a journalist.”
Doig said “willful exclusion” of reporters is not unheard of, though quite rare, and in the past, public officials have used their power to limit access and punish reporters for unfavorable articles.
“Public officials should not have in their mind the belief that a particular class of people or particular category of people are not journalists,” Doig said.
Lotstein said FitzGerald has been reassigned because the e-mails were “inappropriate” for a public information officer. But Lotstein also said there was a misunderstanding in the e-mail exchange in which FitzGerald seemed to be under the impression that Doig was requesting to have his entire class attend the press conferences. Doig’s request was actually only for a small number of students to attend the media briefings.
“The job of a journalism school is to prepare a student to join a media organization once they graduate,” Doig said. “If you go through journalism training without having the opportunity to go see a press conference situation … then [students] wouldn’t be as prepared as they should.”
Doig and Lotstein said they are currently working on an agreement that will allow journalism students to cover the county attorney’s news conferences.