TV network producers and crews were shocked mid-day Tuesday when officials told them they could not conduct on-camera interviews in Senate hallways without prior permission. After just a few hours of outrage, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL), who had taken it on himself to issue the rule, backed down and seemed to rescind the order.
At a time when media crews are camped out wall-to-wall covering daily scandal hearings -- and a time when Senate GOP leaders are gambling on passing a health bill by keeping it secret -- news media access to the legislators doing the people’s business seems more important than ever. Or so said media pundits, Democratic Senators, and even a few Republicans.
If Sen. Shelby and the GOPers counted on the public standing for, or the media lying down for, the sudden and unprecedented assault on press freedom, they miscalculated. By late afternoon TV crews were live again from Senate hallways.
The world of news media covering Congress is a complex, consensus-driven ecosystem of traditions, rules, freedoms, and power-sharing. For many decades it has changed little and worked well enough please most. Congress has ceded much of its authority to regulate media activities to the Standing Committee of Correspondents, made up of media representatives.
Day-to-day management of media activities actually falls to a series of press galleries on either the House or Senate side -- one for daily media, one for periodicals, one for photographers, and one for Radio and TV. There is also a separate Executive Committee of Correspondents for the Radio-TV Galleries. Authority devolves from the House and Senate themselves through the Sergeant at Arms in either chamber, the Capitol Police, and on the Senate side, the Committee on Rules and Administration.
One of the most important things this bureaucracy does is issue Congressional press credentials -- the sine qua non of press cards. To get one, you have to be real news media and you can’t have anything to do with lobbying. Once you have one, you can roam much of the Capitol at will. This allows reporters to lurk outside meeting rooms and ask questions of members as they race (or stroll) to the elevator. Another important function of the galleries is allocating space for media in overcrowded hearing rooms. One key function of the Radio-TV galleries is to maintain studio space that broadcast media can use. TV crews must be credentialed to work in the Capitol.
Shortly after noon ET Tuesday, NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent Kasie Hunt tweeted that she had been told by gallery staff that TV crews were to stop filming unless they had prior permission from the Rules Committee, which had issued the order. This was a departure from decades of established practice granting them broad (but not total) leeway. Almost immediately, a storm of Tweeted outrage followed.
Reactions came from media mavens like NPR’s David Folkenflik, who had worked those hallways for years, Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal, and CNN’s Dylan Byers. “It is wrong,” Folkenflik Tweeted. The New York Times’ Clifford Krauss Tweeted, “I once covered Congress, and its openness was one of the best examples of transparency in a democracy.”
Prompt criticism came likewise from a number of Democrat Senators: Kamala Harris (CA), Jeff Merkley (OR), Michael F. Bennett (CO), Ron Wyden (OR), and Jeanne Shaheen (NH). Sherrod Brown Tweeted “Here’s what I think of the Rules Committee telling reporters they can’t question senators in the hallway,” and added a photo of him doing a hallway TV interview.
The sharpest critique came from Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who Tweeted “Press access should never be restricted unfairly, particularly not when one party is trying to sneak a major bill through Congress.” He was referring to the secret GOP health-insurance repeal bill.
“Attacking the free press & banning reporters is at war with who we are as Americans,” Sen. Bennett Tweeted. “This can't stand.” He offered his conference room to reporters barred from doing interviews in hallways.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN), the ranking Democrat on Senate Rules, didn’t like it either (“I call on the majority to allow reporting in the Capitol to proceed as usual.”) It soon became apparent from several reports that Shelby had acted unilaterally, without talking to either Democrats or Republicans on the committee. After Klobuchar had finally talked to Shelby Tuesday afternoon, she Tweeted, “He said he wouldn't move forward on change to press access without consulting me and we must hold him to it.”
Within hours of the initial report, Shelby had issued a written statement:
"The Rules Committee has made no changes to the existing rules governing press coverage on the Senate side of the Capitol complex. The Committee has been working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules in an effort to help provide a safe environment for Members of Congress, the press corps, staff, and constituents as they travel from Senate offices to the Capitol. Once again, no additional restrictions have been put in place by the Rules Committee."
It was a non-clarification “clarification.” Those who looked up the “existing rules” might well get confused. “Videotaping and stakeouts in the Capitol and the Congressional complex require permission and are prohibited outright in some areas,” the rules state -- but then they add: “Videotaping and audio recording are permitted in the public areas of the House and Senate office buildings.”
But the Shelby “no changes” statement, in context, was read by galleries and reporters as a clawing back or reversal of whatever the sudden no-filming-without-permission decree had been. That was the take of the Birmingham News, CNBC, Roll Call, and the Washington Post.
Given the “existing rules,” gallery staff and Sergeant-at-Arms staff often have to manage crowded hallways, overflowing hearing rooms, and scrums of excited and competitive reporters -- a job which they usually do fairly and effectively.
The scrums have gotten worse this year. Just a few days before the abortive hallway crackdown, the Washington Post had taken note of the hallway chaos with a piece headed “Inside the heaving, jostling Capitol media mob: ‘We are one tripped senator away’ from disaster.”
The Society of Environmental Journalists has in the past taken stands in favor of unhampered news media access to public officials in the Capitol complex. During an April 2014 scrum, Bloomberg reporter Ari Natter was briefly detained by Capitol police after trying to interview then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. SEJ protested and the Capitol police apologized.