ATLANTA - U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution s editorial board on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)
Photo: Tyson Horne
Photo: Tyson Horne

Opinion: Seeking answers in our conference room

When I hurriedly pulled into the AJC’s parking lot early Friday, I noticed that two of the best spots were blocked with traffic cones. I paused for a moment, and then I remembered: we were hosting an important guest that day.

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had committed to meet with reporters and editors from the AJC. She was in town to do some fundraising for U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and a member of her staff had contacted us with an offer to meet with her.

A chance to speak with one of the country’s most powerful and polarizing politicians? Of course. We had plenty to ask her about.

And there was work to do before she arrived. The U.S. Capitol Police had visited our building the day before, familiarizing themselves with the site and making plans for Pelosi’s visit.

The next day saw a large group of us waiting in a conference room. I kept looking through the blinds at two parking spots below, figuring I could alert the group when she and her entourage arrived.

But then Editorial Editor Andre Jackson, who had worked out the details of the meeting with Pelosi’s staff, got up and headed briskly toward the elevator. The two of us were responsible for greeting Pelosi, so I followed him.

I guess I should have figured that her security detail wouldn’t so clearly indicate their plans with a couple of orange cones.

Soon, Pelosi was seated at the head of our conference table, in the same chair as Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, GOP governors Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue and many others who have visited over the years for similar reasons.

It was an on-the-record discussion with about 30 of us. (At least it was after AJC Editorial Cartoonist Mike Luckovich presented Pelosi with one of his cartoons.)

The gathering was the kind of meeting we often have with people in the news, and it’s fair to say Pelosi has been making plenty of news lately. As journalists, we relish the chance to ask questions, get politicians on the record and create accountability to the public.

Of course, Pelosi arrived with the House Democrats agenda (including a handout she referred to as a scorecard of bills the House had passed), and she didn’t hold back. The House’s impeachment inquiry was never out of the conversation for very long, no matter the questions we asked Pelosi.

She described the investigations of President Trump in moral and ethical terms and said the U.S. Constitution was “hanging by a thread.”

“Nobody came to Congress to impeach a president, but we do take an oath to protect and defend our Constitution and to protect our Republic,” Pelosi said. “We have to make sure he’s held accountable and that he’s not above the law, and that no president coming after would ever think it’s OK to be so defiant to what the Founders had in mind.”

In these situations, it would be ideal to get people from both sides in the room. But of course they’d never agree to that, even it could be scheduled.

It presents a challenge to making sure our coverage is fair, especially with someone such as Pelosi who inspires such strong partisan emotions.

So AJC reporter Greg Bluestein reached out to Collins; he didn’t hold back either.

“It just goes to show you have a speaker of the House who has no consideration for fairness and due process,” he told the AJC. “That’s a blatant abuse of power and the people’s trust in the process.”

We covered a wide range of topics with Pelosi, trying to steer the conversation toward issues of particular interest to Georgia.

For example, Pelosi was asked to address the concern that the state’s Democrats have about a lack of national investment in Georgia. Top Democrats and candidates have urged the party to spend money in Georgia now. Their urgency has only multiplied with two U.S. Senate races and hotly contested House seats in the state.

“Suffice to say you won’t be wanting for attention,” she said.

She made clear that the Democrats would be focused on the 6th District race, several times mentioning Lucy McBath, the Democrat who narrowly captured the seat in 2018 and who will face a strong Republican challenge.

Pelosi has “no intention of losing any of my members” in 2020, she said. Republicans, we can be sure, see it differently.

AJC journalists questioned Pelosi on several other key issues. She stood firm on her support of Roe v. Wade.

She also pushed hard on gun legislation that would require background checks to buy a firearm. She said she told the President over the phone last week: “We sent you a bill over 200 days ago. Let’s pass this law.” But the U.S. Senate has control of the bill now.

I took the occasion to call Pelosi’s attention to the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, a bill designed to allow newspapers to negotiate as a group with the large technology companies — Facebook, Google and others. It would create a “safe harbor” from antitrust laws so that newspapers can collectively work out agreements for use of our content.

A company such as Facebook can publish, display and promote newspaper stories as it wants with no input from — or payment to — a newspaper, I reminded Pelosi. Newspapers have said negotiating with these large companies as individual entities is impractical and unfair, given their dominance.

She said she was familiar with the bill, and she recognized the threats to local journalism.

“If they’re using your research, your journalism, your investigative reporting, they should be paying for it,” Pelosi said.

She also used the occasion to criticize President Trump for demonizing the media.

“You are the guardians of democracy,” Pelosi said. “Freedom of the press in our country cannot be reduced.”

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