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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Rep. Shea should keep his seat on the Public Records task force

State Rep. Matt Shea. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

When some of my media brethren or others say they think state Rep. Matt Shea should be banished from a task force on legislative public records because he called reporters “dirty, godless, hateful” people, my quick response is to say “we’ve been called worse, plus I took a shower this morning, was raised Catholic and can’t think of anyone I’d waste time hating.”

My longer response is to paraphrase something I heard as a young reporter in Nebraska, where the state’s senior senator, Roman Hruska, managed to become famous or notorious for a quote in defense of a judicial nominee.

Critics had complained that G. Harold Carswell, President Nixon’s choice for an open Supreme Court seat, was mediocre. Which didn’t bother Hruska a bit.

“Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

So even if Shea does have a certain animus to reporters, there are a lot of legislators and other politicians who have similar opinions of the press. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?

To be sure, the Spokane Valley Republican is more open about his feelings than other colleagues who hold such views. But to suggest that he’s a lone wolf baying at the moon while the rest of the pack is off trying to be buddies with the cattle would be a stretch … not to mention a fairly strained analogy. But you get my drift.

Other lawmakers may smile through gritted teeth at press conferences or do interviews only when forced by caucus leaders, then go back to their offices and tell staff what SOBs those reporters are.

They aren’t likely to say the words Shea used at a recent gun-rights rally in a public setting. But after the spit hit the fan over those comments, Rep. Larry Haler, a fellow Republican from the Tri-Cities, tweeted out thanks to Shea “for your principled stands to defend and preserve our rights. Thank you for telling it like it is regarding the media in this state.”

Haler later walked that back a tad, saying his view has become jaundiced after putting up with a “spiteful” local newspaper. “I am sorry if you took offense … All of the media I worked with in Olympia had integrity.”

Some media types may also take umbrage that Shea was the House Republican “designated hitter” speaking before the vote on the bill to change state public records law by giving legislators special exemptions. As part of his “vote yes” argument, he took a shot at what he considers the media’s underlying motive for the lawsuit that essentially wrecked the privileges they thought they had.

“I would also mention that some who are raising the most consternation about this bill are for-profit companies,” he said. The bill would protect crime victims and whistleblowers that contact legislative offices, protecting them and “the integrity of this institution,” he added.

No legislator got up after him and said “Hey, wait a minute there, Hoss. We may not like everything reporters do, but they don’t do it with an eye to the bottom line because they never see the bottom line. Heck, most of them couldn’t decipher a profit-and-loss statement to save their lives.”

Or: “You know, local governments seem to be able to protect the names of crime victims and whistleblowers when they release public records. Maybe we could check with them.”

Or even: “Most newspapers only wish they were making a profit, and this law probably won’t change that.”

But then, no member of the House – or the Senate for that matter – got up to speak against that ill-fated bill, period. Even the few who voted no stayed quiet under the theory that the train had already left the station.

A few days later, when large numbers of the yes voters wanted off the train, it wasn’t for some rediscovered love of the First Amendment. They changed their minds because the phones started ringing, the email in-boxes overflowed and scorn filled some of their social media accounts.

Some complained about how the coverage was riling up the public, not that they had put the target on their backs themselves by ignoring standard legislative rules and procedures.

Clearly there’s a wide range of opinions among legislators about the rights of the public and the news media to public documents they’d rather we not see. Shea is upfront about his, welcome to them, and should be free to express them even though he’s also representing House Republicans who may or may not share them. Other legislators on the task force should feel free to chime in whether they agree or disagree. The task force should feel free to convey all its “findings” to the rest of the Legislature, which can do whatever it wants with them.

Which, as the long history of legislative task forces suggests, might be little or nothing.