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Jun 24, 2014

Credential Decision Circles the Wagons

Back when I was a lawyer in Washington, D.C. -- for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press -- I received an invitation to "cover" President Clinton's announcement of his nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court. When I arrived at the White House gate, I had to wait a bit while the Secret Service checked my ID. As I waited, members of the regular White House press corps arrived, and tried to flash their access passes and get through the checkpoint. When they were delayed because of the line of non-regulars like me, they got upset and belligerent.  They yelled, and banged on the glass windows of the booth. Eventually they -- and I -- got in for the press conference.

I'm reminded of this incident because of the recent decision by the Standing Committee of Correspondents of the Senate Press Gallery denying Senate press credentials to SCOTUSblog.com. Both incidents reveal an "insider," "us-versus-them" attitude of the established press towards other sources of news: an attitude that is increasingly anachronistic in the modern media age.

SCOTUSblog is seeking the Senate press credential because it wishes to cover the Senate's hearings on Supreme Court nominations and other judicial issues. Also, under current policy -- which is now under review because of the SCOTUSblog request -- the Senate credential is required in order to obtain a press credential from the U.S. Supreme Court itself.

First of all, the Court should not "outsource" determinations on its press passes. If the Court is going to issue credentials to allocate space in the section of the courtroom reserved for the press and the court's press room, it should use its own criteria.

But putting that issue aside, the committee's decision denying SCOTUSblog a Senate credential shows a clear bias against news sources that do not fit within the traditional media mold; a model that is clearly endangered. Literally, only "members of the club" may apply.

This is myopic and antediluvian. Traditional news media in all forms -- from print to broadcast -- are in trouble. Even internet-based (or focused) news media are having a rough time. Increasingly, news is coming from sources that do not fit the conventional news media mold, at least as it has existed since the late 19th century century.

Before that, American news media was comprised largely of newspapers with political and social interests: political parties, or civic groups, for example. And this model of interested parties serving as news sources has seen a resurgence in the internet age. (Of course, these news sources will have to maintain some separation between their agendas and their coverage in order to maintain any credibility.)

The committee says that it rejected SCOTUSblog's request because the blog is not sufficiently editorially independent of the law firm that initially sponsored it. That firm argues cases before the Court, which the committee said constitutes lobbying the federal government. The law firm is also not an independent press organization. The blog, the committee said, was primarily focused on generating legal business for the law firm.

But traditional media organizations lobby the federal government all the time, on both free speech and business issues. And many media outlets are now part of larger conglomerates that have operations in wide variety of non-media businesses.

The Senate and Supreme Court press credentials exist only because of the need to allocate a limited resource -- guaranteed space in Senate hearings, and Supreme Court oral arguments -- to those who need the resource in their work informing the public. And that should be the primary focus of the rules used to allocate them: the informative role that a media outlet plays.

SCOTUSblog is widely recognized as the authoritative site for coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court and related issues, including the Supreme Court nomination process in the Senate. That, contrary to the committee's decision, should be enough for Senate and Supreme Court press credentials.

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