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News & Columns

Club Cred

By Holly Mullen
Posted // June 11,2007 -

Today, a promise: This will not be an embarrassing drool-fest promoting the May 4 “debate” between Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and right-wing radio show host Sean Hannity.

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Event sponsor KSL radio, with help from its TV station sibling, has already nailed that role. The steady hype emanating for more than a month from LDS Church-owned “KSL Broadcast House” is a masterful case study on how the lines between news and entertainment have just about fuzzed out completely.

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Need proof? KSL radio led its drivetime 7 a.m. newsbreak April 24 with “team coverage” of what the station is pimping as “Showdown Salt Lake.” Other stations were leading with reports referring to the bloodiest day in Iraq since the war began. Meantime, three KSL reporters were tripping over each other with the latest on “contract breakdowns” “negotiations” and a “smackfest” between two of this country’s biggest egos.

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As of press time, the debate is on. It’s set for 8:30 p.m., Friday, May 4, at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall'a public, tax-supported auditorium. (The part about being public is important. More to come.) The latest sticking point had been Anderson’s plan to bring along an independent Utah filmmaking team that is documenting the mayor’s final months in office. Hannity threatened to cancel, fearing “selective,” pro-Rocky editing of the film. At last, Anderson reconsidered, withdrawing his request to bring the filmmakers.

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Hannity’s tantrum hinged largely on which press credentials actually count. Amusing that a man who is no more than a highly compensated carnival act should have the power to determine who counts as a credible journalist. Or that this punky little showman is leading venerable old KSL radio around by a fishhook to the nostrils. But then we are s-o-o far beyond any rational discussion of media ethics and conflict of interest in this deal, I might as well be writing this column from the surface of Venus.

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Then there’s our globetrotting, liberal mayor. Anderson takes every opportunity to pummel the press for what he considers Nerf ball coverage of the war and of Bush administration policies in general. He’d like to symbolize all that is right and good with the First Amendment. But wait a minute: Anderson himself has had a longstanding boycott against the Deseret Morning News. He won’t speak to reporters there because he feels the LDS Church-owned paper has a vendetta against him for his efforts to liberalize Utah’s liquor laws. Except for those stories that will garner him national attention, Anderson filters most of his press communication through a spokesman'a totally foreign custom to Salt Lake City mayors of the not-so-distant past.

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And there you have our Mayor Anderson: Champion of press freedom, except for when a reporter might burrow under his own thin skin.

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This debate within the debate does raise fascinating topics about media and access to public events. Hannity has told KSL reporters he’ll accept “accredited media only.” By his definition, “accredited” means “with a corporate sponsorship.?

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Which not only cuts out the filmmakers at issue but a whole host of journalists who make their livings in a noncorporate fashion and might like to have official access to the event: namely blogger-journalists and podcasters. There are scores of them reporting news and opinion, and right here in little old Utah.

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For a little guidance, I called an expert on nontraditional media access. Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C. The not-for-profit organization has no monetary or political ties to business or government.

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“Whether you report for a newspaper or online or from a mobile-phone site, very soon it won’t make much of a difference who your official sponsor is,” Chester says. “Sure, there can be a certain vetting process” by sponsors of events like this, he says. But lines between who is and is not official media, and who gets to call herself a “journalist,” are blurring at light speed. The big newspapers and broadcasters may scoff at the notion. But it’s reality.

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Bloggers and podcasters gained official credentials to the national Democratic and Republican conventions in 2004 and continue to infiltrate spaces once considered off-limits to anyone lacking an “official” press card.

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Finally, I checked in with Ken Verdoia, who heads up news programming at local PBS affiliate KUED 7. Verdoia will moderate the debate. He says he committed only with the understanding that “the event would be entirely, 100 percent public. That means open to broadcast, print, radio'anyone mainstream or not.?

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That covers bloggers, too. “Once upon a time, it was easy to be ?official,’” Verdoia says. “You were either with the morning or evening paper or with one of three TV stations. Now we have official networks broadcasting YouTube videos and cell-phone films of Saddam’s execution. And they want to argue credentials and credibility??

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Verdoia chuckles. “Welcome to the 21st century. It’s all gray.”

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More Mullen: Mullentown.com

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