Impeachment Rules Encroach on Free Press

January 17, 2020 by Dan McCue
The now closed Newseum, January 16, 2020. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – It has been a tough, some would say strange, few weeks for the press in Washington, D.C.

Symbolically, it began with the shuttering of the Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism and freedom of speech, which closed December 31 after increasing financial difficulties.

For years, passersby would stop and read the sidewalk display of the day’s front pages, catching up on how the goings on of the world were being reported across the country and globally.

Since New Years, anyone passing the imposing glass building on Pennsylvania Avenue facing the National Gallery of Art, would find an empty metal railing where those newspapers once hung.

A massive display of the 1st Amendment remains — until renovations for the building’s new occupant, Johns Hopkins University, get underway — but the soul of the place is gone.

As it turns out, the death of the museum was a harbinger of events that have transpired over the past several days.

On Wednesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced sweeping restrictions to access in and around the Senate chamber during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

“Access to any floor of the Senate Wing of the Capitol is restricted daily, beginning 30 minutes prior to all proceedings involving the exhibition or consideration of the Articles of Impeachment against the President of the United States and daily, beginning 30 minutes prior to all times that the United States Senate is sitting for trial with the Chief Justice of the United States presiding,” McConnell and Schumer wrote in a letter distributed on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

There are a multitude of new rules for staff members and other visitors to the Capitol as well.

The letter from the two senate leaders also effectively confirmed media access restrictions, reported by Roll Call a day earlier.

These include the need to secure a special credential from the Senate Press Gallery, the office that facilitates media coverage of the Senate, additional security screening during the trial, and the creation of a single press “pen” to be located on the second floor of the Senate, where lawmakers enter and exit the chamber.

Reporters will be confined to the pen, unable to meet with senators. No movement will be allowed outside the corrals, and reporters and photographers will need to be escorted to and from the pen.

Roll Call reported that the Senate sergeant-at-arms and Capitol Police imposed the unprecedented restrictions on the Capitol press corps following a standoff between the Capitol’s chief security officials, Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt and the Standing Committee of Correspondents.

The security plan was reportedly put in place “to protect senators and the chamber.”

But the Standing Committee of Correspondents, which represents journalists credentialed in the daily press galleries in the House and Senate, came out forcefully against the restrictions, which it said were handed down “without an explanation of how the restrictions contribute to safety rather than simply limit coverage of the trial.”

“These potential restrictions fail to acknowledge what currently works on Capitol Hill, or the way the American public expects to be able to follow a vital news event about their government in the digital age,” the Standing Committee of Correspondents said in a letter this week.

The letter went on to suggest the measures were being implemented “to protect Senators from the bright light of the public knowing what they are doing in one of the country’s most important moments.”

Also objecting to the restrictions was the Society of Professional Journalists, who called them “unacceptable and an outrageous breach of press freedom.”

“SPJ supports the Standing Committee of Correspondents in its stance against the ridiculous restrictions being placed on reporters, photographers and videographers while trying to document this historical event for the American public,” said SPJ National President Patricia Gallagher Newberry in a written statement.

SPJ and the Standing Committee of Correspondents have asked the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration to reconsider these requirements and provide journalists the same level of open access they have been given at similar events in the past.

“The photograph of the delivery of the articles of impeachment against president Bill Clinton in 1998 — and the related news coverage — documents an important moment in the history of this country,” Newberry said. “To deny journalists their Constitutional right to document the historical events occurring now is a gross injustice to the American people.”

Of the press pen specifically, Newberry said, “The new security measures are unnecessary and will do nothing but harm the coverage and documentation of this historic moment.”

A Capitol Hill staffer said Thursday that the situation remains “fluid.”

Video Coverage Could Also Be Curtailed

It wasn’t just print and radio journalists who were aggrieved.

The current plan for next week’s trial coverage has TV depending on the video feed provided by the Senate Recording Studio, which according to C-SPAN will have a restricted view of the floor debates.

C-SPAN, the nonprofit service that carries federal government proceedings and provides them to cable and satellite operators, raised the issue in a Dec. 19 letter to McConnell.

“We believe, and hope you will agree, that the American public deserves a more comprehensive view of the Senate trial,” said the letter from C-SPAN President and Co-Chief Executive Susan Swain.

ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News and CNN backed C-SPAN’s request in their own joint letter on Jan. 10, noting that the feed would be important for their coverage.

“C-SPAN has extensive expertise in covering all aspects of Congress and a commitment to the institution that makes them ideally suited to this task,” the networks said in their letter.

“C-SPAN and the networks share resources to cover historic events such as this and we all believe that the cameras C-SPAN could provide for all our viewers would well serve the American viewing public and our democracy,” they said.

McConnell’s office has yet to respond to the request.

Elsewhere, Big Changes Could Be In The Offing

The uproar at the Capitol wasn’t the only issue of concern among members of the Washington press this week.

On Tuesday,  Bloomberg News reported the Trump administration plans to restrict the news media’s ability to prepare advance stories on so-called “market-moving economic data.”

Currently, the Labor Department hosts “lockups” prior to the release of major reports lasting 30 to 60 minutes. During these sessions, journalists receive the data in a secure room, write stories on computers disconnected from the internet, and transmit them when connections are restored at the release time.

The department is reportedly considering the removal of computers from that room. Critics of the plan say if it is enacted — something that could occur as early as next week – it would severely curtail  the media’s ability to provide headlines, comprehensive stories and tables at the exact release time.

The move is considered the biggest change to economic releases in decades. So far, however, neither the Labor nor the Commerce Department has responded to requests for comment.

In 2012, the Obama administration sought to alter lockups to require journalists to use government-owned computers to write their stories, citing security concerns. However, after protests from Reuters, Bloomberg News and others, the planned change in policy was amended.

The administration agreed to allow reporters to continue to use their own computers and data lines while reviewing the pending reports. But the Labor Department did ban mobile phones and other electronic devices, requiring reporters to keep these in lockers outside the lockup room.

If the Labor Department moves forward doing away with the “lockups” for reporters, it will be the second department to do so.

In July 2018, the Agriculture Department eliminated its pre-release media lockup access, explaining that the change was a response “to advances in technology and market activities and will provide continued equal access to USDA information.”

The department said at the time that when the tradition of pre-release access was granted, the ‘trading floor’ was closed at release time. Market participants had time to absorb information in the reports before trade opened.

“After careful consideration, USDA has determined the costs of maintaining the press room far outweigh any continued benefits to the public,” the department added.

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