Tension on the trail: When reporters are kept from voters at campaign events

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
The Ticket

The report Monday from Canton, Ohio, that reporters were kept from voters at a rally for Vice President Joe Biden is the latest example of the difficulties inherent in a national campaign with thousands of moving parts. It wasn't the first time journalists have had trouble gaining access to voters at events and, when it happens, it can cause serious consternation among campaign staff members who make it a point to let reporters roam as freely as possible.

At presidential campaign rallies, national staff, Secret Service agents and local volunteers usually strike the right balance between protecting reporters' rights to  move around while ensuring the event is safe and secure. But sometimes there's very real tension out on the road. I learned this first hand.

At an airport rally for Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan last Monday in Cincinnati, Secret Service agents barred members of the press from mingling with voters before the event. Like Biden's staff this week, Mitt Romney's team in Ohio worked quickly to fix the problem.

Ryan's rally, which drew a few hundred people, was held on the tarmac of the small airport and surrounded by a barricade. All attendees, journalists and supporters alike, were required to undergo a security check before entering the secured area.

Once through the checkpoint, local campaign staff escorted reporters to a section that divided them from the GOP's supporters by a chest-high fence. I arrived early to interview Ohians before Ryan's speech, set down my bag in the area designated for the press and walked toward the crowd waiting in front of a stage. A Secret Service agent put his arm in front of me before I reached the fence's gate and told me no reporters were allowed to leave the press area to interview voters without an escort from Romney's campaign. He said that was standard policy.

This would make sense if the voters I had sought were outside the security zone, but these people were within the barricades and had been "swept" by security.

I asked the Secret Service agent where I could find a Romney campaign staffer to escort me and he shrugged, unconcerned. I flagged one down, and she took me into the area to talk to voters. After about five minutes, the campaign staffer said she had work to do and could no longer be my escort. Back I went into the media pen.

I searched for other Romney staffers, but none could be found.

After protesting to the Secret Service agent about this absurdity, a senior Secret Service agent approached me and said this was the way things have always been. In more than 20 years on the job, he had "never" let reporters leave their designated area to talk to supporters, he said. I responded that this was the first time I had ever heard of it, having attended many rallies without any Secret Service interference.

With no campaign escorts nearby, I reported on Twitter that journalists were being blocked from freely talking to voters at a Romney event. Within minutes, Romney staffers were on the scene. They insisted this was not their policy and that they would work quickly to convince Secret Service to let reporters talk to voters. Meanwhile, the agent informed me that they had now changed their policy and reporters would not be allowed to talk to voters inside the barricade at all, even with an escort.

Why? He wouldn't say.

With the clock ticking to the beginning of the event, the Romney campaign staffers convinced the Secret Service agents to allow reporters to interview people at the rally. As I walked through the barricade, the agent warned me to stay where he could see me and to report back as soon as Ryan's plane had landed.

In Ryan's case, it was Secret Service enforcing their policy. For Biden's event Monday it appears to have been some misguided local staff or volunteers. Either way, actions like that result in headlines that both campaigns work hard to avoid.