When Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's communications director issued "Official Jackal" credentials to the Capitol press corps in St. Paul last week (Feb. 20), he provoked a small tempest and an ongoing debate among the state's journalists and citizens.
Is the new badge for reporters who cover the governor an amusing inside joke or a demeaning insult to the fourth estate?
St. Paul is the only state capitol where reporters are being asked to wear a credential more akin to a backstage pass to a Rolling Stones concert than a conventional press badge to a political event. It's big, bears a full-body picture of the governor and designates the wearer as an "Official Jackal," a term frequently used by Ventura to deride the media.
The reporter's name, but not photo, is included, raising questions about the credential's value as a security tool.
Some news organizations also objected to a stipulation on the back of the badge: "The Governor's Office reserves the right to revoke this credential for any reason." Ventura spokesman John Wodele insists that the provision is intended to prevent abuse of the credential, not to limit access.
Nonetheless, loss of access for reporters who refuse to wear the passes remains possible.
Reporters for the St. Paul Pioneer Press returned the passes to Wodele with a letter from an editor saying the "Official Jackal" label was "unprofessional" and offering to wear existing credentials issued by Capitol Security police. The move apparently infuriated the governor and Wodele, who told one reporter that the Pioneer Press was "the most uptight, snooty, self-righteous organization I've ever dealt with."
The Associated Press also informed the governor that its reporters would not wear the credentials. "While this may hae been intended as a joke,'' said David Pyle, Minnesota bureau chief for the Associated Press, "we take the matter seriously and will not subject AP staffers to wearing something that may be intended to demean them and their profession."
The Minneapolis-based Star Tribune has advised its reporters that they need not wear the badges unless they want to. If its reporters were refused admission to a gubernatorial event for failing to wear the credential, "we'd be at the courthouse in a New York minute," said executive editor Tim McGuire.
The national media, ignorant of the frequent tensions between the temperamental governor and the Capitol media, found the affair more amusing. Wodele reported that several reporters from national publications called to ask him about the brouhaha, then asked if they could have credentials for themselves.The credentials were intended to serve a serious security purpose for the popular governor while having a little fun, Wodele said. He noted that Capitol reporters recently commissioned T-shirts and jackets with a "media jackal" logo and gave one to Ventura, who was amused. But previous Minnesota governors have never required such credentials and they're rare elsewhere, according to statehouse reporters in other states.
Two days after the flap began, it continued to stir up the state Capitol in St. Paul. At a news conference on health issues Thursday, Ventura noted that only a few reporters in the crowd wore the badge.
"Congratulations, you have a sense of humor," Ventura said to radio reporter Bill Werner of Minnesota News Network, who was wore one of the badges. "And to those who didn't: Go stick your head in the mud."
Werner said he wore the credential both to signal to Ventura "Yes, I think it's a good joke" and because he thought some of his media colleagues "blew it way out of proportion."
The latest dust-up with the Minnesota media only served to again push Ventura onto the national spotlight, he notes. "The governor's XFL venture (Ventura is a TV color commentator for the upstart XFL pro football league) is not doing well. People are criticizing his education budget. Now here he is in the limelight again."
But even Werner has complaints: "What irked me is to have a credential that's ostensibly a security credential that has a picture of your tormentor on it."
As Werner notes, covering the third-party governor can be a challenge. Ventura is thin-skinned and a great story, a font of good quotes and quick to bully or freeze out local journalists who challenge or criticize him.
On Thursday, Wodele said Ventura was reviewing how to enforce the credentials policy. "I still need further consultation with the governor before we establish firm guidelines," he said. "But I don't want to raise expectations on the issue that the governor is somehow not going to want these credentials to be used."
Reaction from the public has been mixed. Some have suggested that reporters who spurned the credentials are biased against Ventura and need to learn to take a joke.
But one sympathetic newspaper reader suggested a different move: "You should have T-shirts made that say `I'd rather be a jackal than a jackass."