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The Standing Committee Stands Pat

The Standing Committee of Correspondents has again rejected SCOTUSblog’s application for credentials on behalf of Lyle Denniston. To anyone who attended or read the live blog of the Committee’s May 23 hearing (see picture below), it is no surprise to learn that the rejection letter focuses on the issue of “editorial independence.”

In brief, the Standing Committee thinks that Tom Goldstein’s dual role as publisher of SCOTUSblog, on the one hand, and a practicing Supreme Court advocate and law firm partner, on the other, means that the blog is not “editorially independent” of Goldstein’s law firm and practice. Because arguing before the Supreme Court counts, in the committee’s view, as “a form of lobbying the federal government” (an interesting perspective) and because Goldstein and his firm are not “principally a general news organization,” the committee concludes that their relationship to SCOTUSblog violates the provision of the Daily Press Gallery Rules requiring that an applicant’s publication “must be editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government, or that is not principally a general news organization.” (As we discussed in a previous post, this provision is found in the version of the rules published in the Congressional Directory, not the version which appears in the Senate Manual).

During the May 23 hearing, Goldstein argued that his relationship to the blog was no different than Jeff Bezos or Rupert Murdoch’s relationship to their respective publications, but the members of the Standing Committee indicated, both verbally and by body language, that they were not buying it. One committee member responded: “There is a clear difference because the publisher of the Washington Post is not Jeff Bezos. Their firewall is enormous by comparison.”

As this quote suggests, the Standing Committee was unimpressed by the firewall SCOTUSblog has put in place to prevent Goldstein’s clients and other interests from affecting the blog’s coverage. To show the ways that Goldstein’s law firm might influence the blog, the Standing Committee pointed to the sharing of office space, personnel and resources between the two entities. It says that “[f]ar from keeping the blog editorially independent of the law practice as the rules require, these policies appear to permit the law practice to blend in with the blog.” The committee also pointed to statements by Goldstein which it viewed as showing he uses the blog as a “client-generating vehicle” and “part of his personal brand.”

Goldstein has responded to the committee’s decision in a blog post (what else?) in which he focuses less on the specifics of the interpretation of the rules and more on the implications for non-traditional media. He argues, reasonably, that the committee’s reasoning would extend “equally to any publication that is produced by someone who plays dual roles, one of which isn’t a news organization.” Thus, he suggests, under the committee’s approach a school superintendent’s blog about education, a physicist’s blog about science or a practicing physician’s blog about medicine would be deemed inherently not “editorially independent” and therefore inferior to the work of traditional media.

He observes: “The members of the Standing Committee are traditional journalists who come from a proud and treasured tradition of complete independence from anything but their craft. That is a fantastic model for journalism. But it is not the only one. And it is unfortunate that this is a decision in which members of the traditional media exercise their own power over access to the government to categorically exclude a wide range of competitors.”

Goldstein intends to appeal to the Senate Rules Committee. I think it is unlikely that the Rules Committee will be interested in getting in the middle of a specific application for press credentials. Since it has no obligation to do anything, the smart money says it will do nothing (you won’t go broke betting on Congress to do nothing). But there is some possibility that the chairman and ranking member (Senators Schumer and Roberts) will be interested in addressing the broader questions Goldstein raises about the role of non-traditional media. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.

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