former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

SCOTUSblog deserves congressional access

In Blog on June 9, 2014 at 9:10 pm

I remember one of the hardest adjustments I had to make when I left my job at the trade daily, American Banker, and joined the national staff of the good-government group, Common Cause: While I love my new job, I hated giving up the access.  I hated having to plan to attend congressional hearings, and then stand in line for an hour or more, when my former colleagues in the fourth estate could run into a hearing room at the last minute, assured of a seat and access to all the materials.

The irony was, that when I was working for Common Cause, most of my time was spent doing journalism – hard-hitting reports focused on the influence of big money on policymaking.  Yes, it’s true, the journalism had a point of view– it was aimed at making our campaign finance system and our government more open, honest and accountable.

But the reports I wrote were the best journalism I ever did.  And they received terrific play in the mainstream media. Heck, one report, on the conflicts of interest besetting then SEC chair Harvey Pitt popped up on Meet the Press.  I tuned in to find some of the words I had written for that report on the big screen as the late Tim Russert asked Pitt about my report’s assertions.

That isn’t to say I expected to receive credentials from the Senate Press Gallery.  There is a distinction between non-profit advocacy groups and entities that practice journalism.

But in this new world of blogs, and increasingly opinionated journalism, the way we define journalism and journalists needs a lot of re-thinking.   I serve on the membership committee of the National Press Club, and sometimes I feel like a member of the Vatican curia trying to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

One symptom of the need to update our definitions and qualifications is reflected in the current controversy over SCOTUSblog and the decision by the U.S. Senate Daily Press Gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents to refuse to credential its journalists.

The SCOTUS in SCOTUSblog stands for Supreme Court of the United States, and the blog, by all accounts, has done an outstanding job covering the court and its decisions.  It has received a Peabody award and an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for its excellent and comprehensive reporting.

But what has got the credentialing committee’s knickers in a twist concerns the way the blog supports itself financially, and whether its support structure erodes its ability to avoid “lobbying” the court.

SCOTUSblog does have a complicated structure, in part because its founder is a practicing lawyer.  But the blog has gone to great lengths to wall off its coverage from conflicts of interest.

And it has valid reason for seeking congressional credentials. Not only do such congressional credentials carry some weight with the folks who give premium access to Supreme Court proceedings, they also give reporters writing on court-related issues in Congress the access they need.

For ages, journalists have worked for publishers and media owners who have had financial ties that could affect coverage of a myriad political and economic issues.  The Graham family, which owned The Washington Post, also owned for-profit colleges; the paper’s current owner, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, practically owns the world.  NBC News now is owned by cable giant Comcast and its reporters will have to write about Comcast’s effort to gain government permission to merge with Time Warner. Yet when we’re dealing with legacy journalism, these questions of ownership and independence seem less threatening.

Reporters tend to be very respectful – I would say too respectful – of one another.  But in a May 22 letter to the chair of the credentialing committee, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 14 media outlets wrote a letter urging the committee to re-consider its decision.  (SCOTUSblog appealed the rejection and there was a public hearing on the matter on May 23. The committee has not yet said whether it will reconsider its rejection.)

The letter, signed by National Public Radio, The New Yorker, Politico, and CNN, among others, made this common-sense point: “The function a journalist serves – providing news and commentary about pressing issues to the public – has always been to us more important than the organizational format within which he or she sits, so long as his or her news outlet has clear policies to maintain editorial independence.”

In this era of blogs and non-traditional media, it is crazy to make decisions about journalism qualifications on the basis of organizational structure. Our media landscape is different these days. Traditional media outlets are feeling the sharp elbows of online publications whose correspondents also expect – and deserve – access, provided they don’t make stuff up and provide serious news coverage. Needless to say, their employers should give them the independence to report honestly and fairly.

To my mind, a journalist should be defined as someone who produces journalism – information or commentary that serves the public interest.  I would extend that definition to journalists who may have to take second or third jobs to support their expensive habit of wanting to report the news.

SCOTUSblog is not your average media outlet, but it has more than proven it is committing acts of journalism.  It seems strange to demur on its media credentials, when 200 media outlets, including non-traditional sites such as Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, are given this valuable access.  Let’s hope the credentials committee changes its mind.

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