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.

Follow Up on the SCOTUSblog Matter

Note: There will be a meeting of the Standing Committee today at 10:30 am to hear from SCOTUSblog regarding the renewal of Lyle Denniston’s credentials. From what I understand, it is open to the public.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 14 media outlets, including CNN, NPR and Politico, have written this letter to the Daily Press Gallery in support of SCOTUSblog’s position. The letter addresses some of the specific concerns regarding Denniston’s application, including a fairly cursory paragraph regarding his and the blog’s need for direct access to the Senate, but its primary focus is on the question of how the Standing Committee should approach non-traditional media.

The letter states: “The Reporters Committee’s interest in this matter stems in part from our role in assisting the Gallery in earlier years with fine-tuning the very rules that are at issue in the SCOTUSblog application.” I assume this refers to the 2005 revisions discussed in my prior post.

The RCFP urges the Standing Committee to focus on the function that a journalist serves—“providing news and commentary about pressing issues to the public”—rather than on how his or her organization is organized and financed. In construing its rules, the Standing Committee should consider “the changing finances of the media industry” and should not automatically reject non-traditional arrangements such as the Bloomberg sponsorship.

Moreover, it notes pointedly, “it does not seem workable for credentialing rules as applied to focus solely on a blog’s financial and organizational structure when many large media outlets are owned by corporate conglomerates or obtain substantial advertising revenue from individual companies.” It might have added that since the Standing Committee’s 2005 guidelines allow these media outlets and their corporate owners to continue lobbying as usual, it would be a tad unfair to exclude smaller or less established media outlets based on the mere possibility that they could engage in lobbying.

Should SCOTUSblog Get a Credential? (Or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Congressional Press Galleries But Were Afraid to Ask)

SCOTUSblog has filed this letter with the Standing Committee of Correspondents regarding the Standing Committee’s decision not to renew Lyle Denniston’s membership in the congressional Press Galleries. Although the Standing Committee only determines whether an applicant may be admitted to the House and Senate Press Galleries, such admission is apparently required before Denniston can obtain a Supreme Court credential, which is his main objective. For a thorough and interesting discussion of the background of this matter, see this article, which asks “Why Can’t SCOTUSblog Get a Credential?,” by Jonathan Peters in the Columbia Journalism Review.

To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at the rules governing the press galleries, such as they are. As Peters notes, there are actually four types of press galleries: (1) the Press Galleries (which we will refer to as the “Daily Press Galleries” for clarity’s sake); (2) the Periodical Press Galleries; (3) the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Galleries; and (4) the Press Photographers’ Gallery. The photographers’ gallery is different than the others because it is a single gallery, authorized only by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration (hereinafter “the Senate Rules Committee”), with no counterpart in the House.

Denniston is applying for admission to the Daily Press Galleries, which are set aside for newspapers and other news organizations that publish daily. The Daily Press Galleries consist of a House Gallery and a Senate Gallery. Each is separately authorized under House and Senate Rules and each has a separate staff. However, they are jointly administered by the Standing Committee, and there is a single set of rules and a single admissions process for both galleries. The Standing Committee’s authority comes from the House and Senate Rules, and it is ultimately subject to the direction and control of the Speaker, with regard to the House Gallery, and the Senate Rules Committee, with regard to the Senate Gallery.

The Periodical Press Galleries and the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Galleries also consist of separate House and Senate Galleries, but, like the Daily Press Galleries, each has a single administrative body, a single set of rules and a single admissions process. The Periodical Press Galleries, for example, admit journalists employed by “periodicals that regularly publish a substantial volume of news material of either general, economic, industrial, technical, cultural, or trade character.” They are governed by the Periodical Press Gallery Rules and overseen by the Executive Committee of the Periodical Correspondents’ Association.

Why is it necessary to have four different types of press galleries, including a separate administrative body and rules for daily versus periodical reporters? Maybe there is a good reason, but I suspect the answer is the same one that explains why there is still a National Information Technology Service.

In any event, that is the overview of the congressional press galleries: seven galleries, seven sets of staff, four administrative bodies, four sets of rules, and two political overseers. All to govern a population the size of a large public high school. Welcome to Washington.

Now let’s examine the rules that govern Denniston’s application.

Continue reading “Should SCOTUSblog Get a Credential? (Or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Congressional Press Galleries But Were Afraid to Ask)”

Congressional Regulation of the Press Galleries

As described in this Hill article by Alexander Bolton, Vice President Biden’s office has filed a complaint with the Senate Press Gallery regarding the tactics used by a credentialed reporter who used the pretense of posing for a photograph with the Vice President to get close enough to ask him a question. In case you were wondering what authority the Press Gallery has, and where it comes from, here is a brief summary.

Continue reading “Congressional Regulation of the Press Galleries”