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Circles and lines

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Over the weekend I attended a training session for volunteers working the "Bring Them Home Now!" rally and march in Fayetteville on Saturday, March 19. At the end, everyone joined hands to sing a song of peace. I was on the periphery, still taking notes. "Aren't you going to join us, Bob?" somebody asked.

Flashback to my first job--years ago--with a daily newspaper in New Jersey. Good journalistic form says no, you're a reporter, not a participant--maintain a proper distance. I got up and joined the circle.

No big deal, but I found myself thinking about it in connection with the effort to reform lobbying practices in the General Assembly. Today, legislators accept free meals, tickets and gifts from lobbyists, and as long as no specific legislation is discussed (as in, "Senator, that Chris Paul is a dirty player, and speaking of dirty, how 'bout Senate Bill 6000?"), nobody has to report a thing.

Citizen groups on the left and the right think such freebies should be disclosed, even banned. "No one alleges that a lobbyist can buy a legislator's vote with a meal or basketball ticket or golf outing," says Chris Fitzsimmon, representing N.C. Policy Watch. "But no one denies that the lobbyist can buy access--private time with a legislator that ordinary folks cannot have."

In a way, legislators and journalists are in the same business, gathering information and making up our minds about it. We talk to people, they talk to us, and if we find that we have interests in common, we may even make friends, graze a buffet line together at a Chamber of Commerce function, say, or--in my case--a potluck dinner with peace activists.

After all, people need people, as the fabulous Barbra said. Legislators need allies, and journalists need sources, but what we both need, too, is the ability to step back and not to be beholden when it's time to write or vote. Are we "bought" with a ticket? No. But lots of tickets and dinners at Nana's and it warps your perspective.

So, sure, I'd be curious to know how much a lobbyist spends to beat SB-6000. But what I'd really like to know is if one of my legislators is taking so many freebies from so many lobbyists that the little people have become only a dim memory. That's why we need clear lines and disclosure. Because, I can tell you, hang out with the peaceniks too much, and it does rub off.

Buses are running to Fayetteville on March 19. For information, see Act Now and visit www.ncpeacejustice.org.

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