I would like to thank everyone for attending today’s meeting. We look forward to discussing the application of SCOTUSblog. The issue before us today is SCOTUSblog the publication and not any individual.
The Standing Committee of Correspondents meets here today as a group of journalists who are deeply committed to ensuring as much access as possible for as many reporters as possible to the halls of Congress. As one of the oldest journalistic institutions in Washington, we are also one of the most important forces standing between our profession and putting all access and coverage questions entirely in the hands of the government officials we are trying to cover.
And so we do not take our responsibilities lightly.
When we credential reporters, it means that no lobbyists or pleaders of special interests will wear this credential. It means that no political party operatives will hold this press pass. It means that publications must pass muster as well as reporters, so that the publications do not have conflicts wherein they could be mistaken for something else.
These are not new ideas. Some of the words you just heard me utter were written more than a decade ago by a predecessor who then as now faced a difficult task. And even that was not the only challenge this committee has ever faced.
In fact, the Standing Committee grew out of a time when Washington DC journalists were faced with a crisis: reporters were working as lobbyists, and lobbyists were pretending to be reporters. It wasn’t pretty – and the result was to erode trust in journalism. To me, the message is clear: you cannot be both the agent of the reader and the agent of something else. It doesn’t work – we know because we tried it.
In other words, while the media are ever evolving and changing, the need to guard against conflicts of interest remains.
It was for this very reason that the Standing Committee was created — to bring some kind of integrity to the job of newsgathering. Whatever the criticisms of the press, in this building no one ever asks whether the press is also working for some other business or group. Reporting is used to inform readers and for nothing else. That is the foundation of reporters’ access, which is after all enshrined not in a law of Congress, but in something more slender and thus more in need of protection: a simple congressional rule.
I know people have a lot of questions about the standing committee and so I want to take a moment to describe our role. We don’t make decisions about credentials based on the quality of content. To do so would be to place the committee in a censorship role. We also don’t make decisions based on popular pressure. Making decisions in response to that pressure is not good for the institution of journalism.
As for what we do: We do look at the structure of an applicant’s business. What kind of firewalls are in place to wall off the editorial side from the influences of any outside groups or businesses? How accurate are the disclosures? These are certainly some of the questions I have asked myself as I go about applying the congressional rules.
It’s worth saying that these are questions I am asking more and more these days as we see more and more instances where organizations try to latch on to the label of “news organization” and all that implies in order to gain access to lawmakers. We know that other groups are watching our procedure today very closely to see what kind of business models will win approval. I personally feel great pressure to get this right.
Which brings us to Scotusblog. Today, we will hear from Scotusblog, whose application the committee considered for months. Last month in a 4-0 vote we decided that the Web site had not demonstrated to the satisfaction of the committee that it met gallery standards for obtaining a congressional press pass. It was the publication — and not any employee — that did not meet those standards.
We will get into these issues today, including our concerns about the editorial independence of Scotusblog from a law firm and one of its principals. Before we get to that, I want to be clear about a couple points. First, the way the rules work, the burden of proof is on applicants to meet the standards. When we put our initials on an application, we have to feel satisfied that the applicant and his or her publication both qualify.
In order to gain that satisfaction, we need accurate information. So when you hear us ask questions, please understand we are not being gratuitous or trying to give someone a hard time. Because correct information is so important, this concept is embedded in the rules themselves.
We would like to give Scotusblog five minutes to make opening remarks. We look forward to hearing from you, and will have questions for you afterwards.