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So much for legislative coverage

Thu, Dec 10, 2009

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During the past 150 years, thousands of reporters have covered statehouses throughout the Mountain West.

They tend to be merry, cynical, and tough-minded men and women, used to dealing with fools, scoundrels, hypocrites and even the occasional selfless idealist.

In the old days, they seldom refused a drink, an opportunity for a good time, or a free meal. They were – and are – a fearless lot, unafraid of the brutish power brokers who would just as soon silence their voices.

Publishers distrusted them, because they took on the powerful and the unscrupulous in the shadowy no-man’s land of lobbyists, interest groups, and trade associations – and thereby infuriated advertisers. Their editors protected them, knowing that, as Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “No man’s life, liberty or property is safe when the legislature is in session.”

But after 150 years, many of these voices will be stilled.

The Gazette will no longer have a full-time reporter at the legislature, nor will the Pueblo Chieftain. That’s not just regrettable – it’s potentially catastrophic.

The legislature’s proceedings are about as transparent as, say, Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus logico-philisophicus” in the original Latin-if you don’t speak Latin.

Absent smart, skillful and perpetually alert reporters, it’s almost impossible to figure out what our elected representatives are up to.

A clever legislator can do the bidding of the powerful, and kill a popular bill while appearing to support it. Without statehouse reporters, serious debate-not that there’s much of it in the best of times-will vanish, to be replaced by lies, exaggerations, and the nastiest kind of partisan political maneuvering.

Grim times, indeed-and that’s why we need Mark Twain, who was one of the first, and certainly the best, statehouse reporter in our region’s history. During 1862-1868, he covered the Nevada legislature, and anything else that caught his fancy, for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise.

He was a great reporter – and he knew how to have a good time. He would have been right at home in the Red Room, the Colfax Avenue establishment long favored by reporters, lobbyists, and legislators. Here’s his immodest account of one convivial evening during December of 1863, a ball and supper in Virginia City hosted by the Virginia City Eagle Engine Company.

A TIDE OF ELOQUENCE

“Afterwards, Mr. Mark Twain being enthusiastically called upon, arose, and without previous preparation, burst forth in a tide of eloquence so grand, so luminous, so beautiful and so resplendent with the gorgeous fires of genius, that the audience were spell-bound by the magic of his words, and gazed in silent wonder in each other’s faces as men who felt that they were listening to one gifted with inspiration [Applause.] The proceedings did not end here, but at this point we deemed it best to stop reporting and go to dissipating, as the dread solitude of our position as a sober, rational Christian, in the midst of the driveling and besotted multitude around us, had begun to shroud our spirits with a solemn sadness tinged with fear…”

“A solemn sadness tinged with fear.” That’s how we ought to view the disappearance of statehouse reporting. And what would Twain have done?

Listened to John Belushi, as Bluto in Animal House.

“My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.”

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Dick Burns Says:

    Indeed, start drinking heavily as the local press, save for CSBJ, largely ignores or misses the salient points of any debate in city council chambers or down the street at the county.