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When Listening Makes Noise

(AP / CBS)
The ever-vigilant Jim Romenesko brings to our attention an interesting account of the "Eye On America Tour" which today passed through Minneapolis. Examining what the Minneapolis Star-Tribune calls "a well orchestrated media event that excluded the media," the paper covers Katie Couric's stop in the city, focusing on her meeting with community members to find out what's on their minds when it comes to the "Evening News."

The CBS News anchor and "Evening News" Executive Producer Rome Hartman are spending the week doing these events in six cities as they work toward a new broadcast to be launched this fall. These events include discussions with about 100 community members from each city and are closed to the press (Public Eye's request to attend one was turned down with all the rest for the record).

According to the Star Tribune, today's event included a former city council president, a public relations "guru" and a journalism professor. The audience also included a blogger, and that's where the fun started. According to the paper's story:

Matt Bartel, owner of the popular MNSpeak blog also was issued an invitation by WCCO [the local CBS affiliate], although the station apparently didn't recognize the name Bartel (ubiquitous in Twin Cities publishing circles) or his business, until the event was about to start.

"They pulled me out of the auditorium and told me that they'd become aware of the fact that I had a blog," Bartel said. "They said, 'We don't want you to participate,' " then offered him a choice: surrender his notebook or leave the event.

"I wasn't going to give them my notebook; I had business stuff in there."

A compromise was reached - the 'CCO staffer confiscated Bartel's pen instead.

Bartel's reaction was fairly mild, later commenting that "no one said anything all that remarkable" at the event. Others were less impressed with the media blackout:
"It seems like something the president would pull," said Jane Kirtley, University of Minnesota ethics professor. "At a time when the news media is trying to gain the trust through transparency, to have a meeting closed to the media and the general public is unbelievable."
While I am, of course, going to err on the side of transparency in just about every single instance, there is something to be said for these types of discussions remaining informal and at least semi-private. A big part of this trend toward transparency is engagement with the audience (that's why we're asking for your thoughts on the new "Evening News" so keep 'em coming). Doing so in a setting that isn't open to the kinds of posturing and stagecraft that comes with media coverage does have some value.

But it's always awkward when a news organization shuts out access. And reporters shouldn't take away other reporters' pens. This listening tour also has a media component to it. The tour has a spot on the Web site, and it has gotten a fair amount of press coverage for the fact it is taking place. And Couric has done some media in these cities, especially surrounding her corresponding charity events. These types of things used to be called focus groups. This one is neither fish nor fowl, and now some are calling foul. Let us know what you think.