New York State officials want to know who’s talking to journalists.
In a 10-3 ruling on Tuesday, New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics voted to expand the definition of lobbying to include communications between public relations firms and journalists. If a communications official contacts an editorial writer in an attempt to earn news coverage on a political issue, they might have to disclose the communication as a lobbying effort.
Transparency advocates say the new guidelines will keep readers informed if publications have underlying motives for their opinion pieces. But PR firms and journalist associations have condemned the move as an unconstitutional overreach, one that distracts from real issues of corruption in New York.
“Any attempt by a consultant to induce a third-party—whether the public or the press—to deliver the client’s lobbying message to a public official would constitute lobbying under these rules,” the new legislation reads.
Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, says these new guidelines are not radically different from other lobbying laws.
“I could see a way in which communication about a particular legislative measure to an editorial board would be in the same vein as lobbying, even though it’s not to a public official, directly,” Graves told The Daily Beast. “In the nonprofit world, when you file your disclosure forms to the IRS, you have to disclose both your direct lobbying and your grassroots lobbying, which involves urging people to contact their lawmakers about a particular matter. In some ways, I could see how [JCOPE’s] measure is similar to grassroots lobbying.”
But journalism groups say the new measures are a privacy issue.
“It smacks of Big Brother,” said Michelle Rea, executive director of the New York Press Association. “In the opinion of the New York Press Association, JCOPE missed the mark here. They’re tasked with cleaning up the legislature. They’re tasked with making good government happen in Albany. They’re not tasked with monitoring who talks to the press.”
Rea said rampant corruption in the state government should be Albany’s priority. After all, New York recently saw Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos convicted of corruption charges.
She’s not alone in questioning the state’s logic.
Public relations firm The November Team sent Albany leaders a list of 48 questions on the new measures including “Do you think that straight news stories are impregnable to influence, but not editorials?” or “If a news release is sent to a columnist, does that release have to be reported?” and “How many First Amendment experts were consulted?”
The November Team has announced that they will “refuse to comply” with the new guidelines, Crain’s reports.
Lawmakers dismissed fears of First Amendment violations as being overblown, citing “some very dramatic readings from certain media outlets,” Politico New York reports.
But perhaps the most dramatic reading of these new measures is a literal one.
Suppose PR firms complied with these new guidelines and actually registered every email blast to journalists—including every second and third and fourth follow-up message and every Twitter direct message dump. Imagine following these regulations to the letter, documenting every “just reaching out” phone call, event invite, and inexplicable LinkedIn request.
Curiously, some of the most dogged public relations officials are in lawmakers’ own offices, sending reporters follow-up emails long after an article has gone to print, urging a publication to include a praise-filled paragraph on a politician’s almost-entirely unrelated achievement.
Should government officials be allowed to peek into portions of reporters’ communications? Journalist advocates like Rei argue no. But as the law stands now, New York lawmakers are about to understand what a journalist’s inbox really looks like. And it won’t be a small—or pretty—amount of paperwork.