RTDNA today objected to what could be an upcoming move by the U.S. Senate Rules Committee that would make it more difficult for broadcast and other reporters to question senators about public policy in the U.S. Capitol.
There are reports that consideration may be given to ending the years-long practice of allowing reporters to use video and audio recording equipment to interview senators in Capitol hallways. But earlier today, reporters who cover the U.S. Senate were told that new rules had been enacted to no longer allow reporters to interview Senators in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol at all.
“This is another attempt at obscuring transparency in Washington,” according to Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director. “At a time when Senators are already doing too much business behind closed doors, such as on the health care overhaul, further limiting access to senators in the hallways of Congress represents just one more effort to keep the public’s business private,” he added. “It’s totally unacceptable!”
The initially reported rules change would have required reporters to obtain permission, in advance, from the senator or senators they wished to interview, as well as permission from the Senate Rules Committee and Sergeant at Arms, in order to use video and audio equipment while asking questions in Capitol hallways. The rules, according to the Senate Radio & Television Correspondents Gallery, say, in part, “Videotaping and audio recording are permitted in the public areas of the House and Senate office buildings.”
Later in the day, Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) issued a statement saying that no rules change had occurred. But the existing rules, while not currently enforced, do require advance permission for interviewing Senators outside of designated areas. Should the Senate choose to enforce those rules, access to lawmakers would be considerably restricted.
The Radio Television Correspondents Association, which works with the Senate Radio and TV Correspondents Gallery on issues of media access, issued a statement this afternoon:
“This is a moment in our history when openness in government is more important than ever,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Incoming Executive Director, who spearheads RTDNA’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force. “To restrict the ability of reporters to ask public officials questions about public policy in the public hallways of a public building impedes citizens’ right, and need, to know what their elected officials are doing on their behalf. This appears to be a move by Senators to shield themselves from having to answer uncomfortable questions during a tumultuous time,” Shelley said.
RTDNA notes that several members of the Senate protested quickly when it appeared the rules had been changed. Notable among them were Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN.), ranking member of the Rules Committee, who tweeted, “This is no time for limiting press access in the U.S. Senate,” and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who tweeted, “This is a bad idea.”
Today’s move follows a letter sent to reporters last month by Senate officials warning that “Collectively, the press following Senators have become large and aggressive. We are concerned someone may get hurt.”
“In no way does RTDNA condone an atmosphere in which someone might be hurt in the process of routine newsgathering,” Shelley said. “However, today’s new restrictions appear to be an overreaction. It is the duty of the Senate Sergeant at Arms and U.S. Capitol Police to protect everyone’s safety, but, in our view, not through such draconian means.”
Joining RTDNA in this objection to any change to current practices are the National Press Photographers Association, Reporters Without Borders, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Press Club and the National Press Club Journalism Institute, PEN America, the Online News Association, the Journalism and Women’s Symposium and the Military Reporters and Editors Association.
The RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force will continue to monitor the situation and act accordingly.