Op-Ed: Pritzker’s attempt at censorship falls short, and IPA’s silence is deafening

When government reaches into a newsroom to police journalism, it oversteps a boundary.

When government attempts to direct the news, or determine what is or what isn’t relevant, it flashes its tyrannical side.

And when media ignores this imperiousness, it’s complicit in the greatest journalistic sin of them all: Willful omission.

The Center Square published a story about Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaking to Politico Live in February in Washington, D.C., ahead of his 2020 state of the state address. In that interview, Pritzker said he’d have to cut statewide services if a progressive tax isn’t passed as part of a change to the state’s constitution.

This is straight-news reporting. The words came out of Pritzker’s mouth. His words are in context. Watch him say them in the video that accompanies the story on The Center Square’s website.

The Center Square’s Greg Bishop captured Pritzker’s words, verbatim, reported them fairly, with video accompaniment of his speech, and in the context of the path that Pritzker himself has laid out for a change to Illinois’ state income tax structure. Mind you, Pritzker’s path cuts directly through his fiscal 2021 state funding budget proposal, which includes $1.4 billion in new taxes from higher tax rates that would be collected from higher wage earners and businesses if voters approve the progressive tax in November.

Pritzker acknowledged his progressive tax plan – if not passed – would have consequences to state programming. If you live in Illinois, these words should be important to you because they are newsworthy.

Clearly, Pritzker didn’t appreciate that The Center Square focused its reporting on the news within his speech. We surmised this because, after our story was published, a member of his staff reached out to at least one newspaper that republished it and asked that it unpublish the story.

Kudos to the Jacksonville (Ill.) Journal-Courier for demonstrating journalistic courage. They did not bow to pressure from the office of the highest-elected official in the state.

Press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh, a former television reporter in the Springfield market who covered the statehouse and then joined Pritzker’s campaign in 2017, reached out on behalf of the governor to the Jacksonville newspaper. Our Freedom of Information Act request documented her email exchange.

However, our editors have seen such an attempt to suppress the news before – albeit not from an ex-journalist. In fact, it’s almost as if Abudayyeh mistakenly followed the failed playbook of her direct counterpart in Colorado.

Connor Cahill, press secretary for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, sent letters to two news outlets in his state in September, criticizing a story by The Center Square that asked how much Polis’ recently created “Office of Future Work” would cost its state’s taxpayers. Cahill also urged the two newspapers to unpublish the story from their websites. In The Center Square’s story about Polis’ newly created office, a GOP spokesperson called the idea “Orwellian.”

Cahill’s move on behalf of Polis against local media brought criticism from across Colorado’s TV and print media, and spurred more than a dozen news stories and op-ed pieces on the air or in print.

None of these reports or commentaries condoned Polis’ actions. Each, in its own unique way, stated clearly that government had no place in telling local media what to publish or not publish.

Meanwhile, here in Illinois, there has been little reporting in media of Pritzker’s attempt to censor the news.

The Illinois Press Association operates the Illinois First Amendment Center, which is supposed stand up to censorship and assaults on journalism.

The Center Square’s editors asked IPA to look at the Pritzker story, Abudayyeh’s actions, and then comment for our story.

IPA President Sam Fisher said he had no comment.

Jeff Rogers, IPA Foundation director, who also is listed as interim bureau chief of the IPA’s Capitol News Illinois service, did not return a call or email.

Mind you, these are the people entrusted by Illinois media to protect the First Amendment.

No comment? Whatever.

The organization entrusted to protect the First Amendment in Illinois may be in over its head, or perhaps can’t get beyond its internal conflicts of interest, to involve itself in its stated primary mission to protect a free press.

Capital News Illinois, which has attempted to compete with The Center Square in Illinois, hasn’t written about Pritzker, Abudayyeh and the governor’s office’s attempt to quash the news, either.

Pritzker’s action represents a new and different low in Illinois. Amazing, really, given the number of our governors who have been sent to federal prison and the number of legislators – past and present – convicted of abusing the public trust while in office.

We live in a time when trust in all of media is painfully low, and too many in the media behave as if they are in government, a part of it, or an extension of it, simply by bounce-passing the news from the mouths of the elected, appointed and entrenched to the ears and eyes of the public.

That’s wrong. It’s bad for democracy. It’s complicity.

There is plenty of soul-searching to go around. Anyone who has covered the statehouse from within the Springfield Bubble for more than a few minutes would have to believe in their heart and mind that summoning the courage to ask more difficult questions should be part of their journalistic approach in covering the capitol. Asking the governor why he would attempt to censor the news would seem like fair game for a free press that believed in the First Amendment.

We will ask ourselves, again, publicly.

The Center Square will continue to ask difficult questions to those in government – here in Illinois and across the country.

And we will do so for years to come.

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