JACKSON – In the movie “The Contender,” U.S. Sen. Laine Hanson gets a little philosophical as she undergoes a congressional confirmation process after being appointed vice president to fill a vacancy.
Hanson’s character, played by Joan Allen, says, “I may be an atheist, but that does not mean I do not go to church. I do go to church. The church I go to is the one that emancipated the slaves, that gave women the right to vote, that gave us every freedom that we hold dear. My church is this very chapel of democracy that we sit in together…”
While I do not subscribe to Hanson’s lack of religion, I, like her, do find a reverence, in the halls of democracy – the Capitol. While it has been a long time since I have stepped foot in the nation’s Capitol, I have had the privilege of reporting to work in the Mississippi Capitol nearly every day since the summer of 1995.
Every day I walk into this august, ornate building I consider an honor – and, yes, a responsibility.
I believe strongly my profession plays an integral role in the activities that occur in this structure – the people’s building, as former Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, used to call the Capitol.
Through decades, numerous politicians have held sway in this building. They have fought over everything imaginable – big issues, such as integration, public kindergartens and health care, and small issues, such as whether a bill sent to the governor for his signature would be one originating in the House or Senate.
Politics, by its very nature, creates conflict – even among politicians of the same party.
But through all the conflict – whether grandiose or trivial – those political leaders have agreed on at least one thing: The important role the press plays in a representative democracy. And because of that recognition, all, going back decades and continuing through the present day, have placed the press room in a visible spot in the state Capitol.
All who come in this building – whether they are simple tourists or powerful lobbyists – see by the position of the press room the importance the state’s political leadership places on a free press. The press room in the Mississippi Capitol is located in the middle of the building on the fourth floor – halfway between the House and Senate chambers. It is prime real estate in an important, historic building that has limited space.
Used to, when I first moved to Jackson to cover state government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, the Capitol press room normally had at least seven reporters representing six new outlets working out of the room year-round.
As I write this, only three reporters representing two news organizations are working out of the press room. But the room livens up when the Legislature is in session.
Three weeks ago during the Medicaid special session, the room was jam-packed with journalists. It is not uncommon to have as least 10 journalists or more representing six or seven news outlets working out of the room.
And sometimes – often – the politicians might not like what we report. But through the years, whether it was speakers Tim Ford, or C.B. “Buddie” Newman; lieutenant governors Brad Dye, Ronnnie Musgrove or Phil Bryant, governors Haley Barbour, Kirk Fordice or William Winter, they all respected, and yes sometimes cursed, the role of the press in the interactions in this chapel of democracy.
But they have never tried to diminish that role.
It is a role, we, like the politicians we cover, should approach with a seriousness, but also humility and honor.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.