National Press Club

Media have good access, relationships on Capitol Hill, says panel

August 6, 2017 | By Lorna Aldrich | Lorna2@verizon.net

Reporters generally have good access and relationships with Congressional sources despite a wider environment of hostility toward the media, a panel of media professionals said at a National Press Club Journalism Institute event Aug. 4.

“There is more access today than there ever has been," said Brendan Buck, counselor to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. He noted, for example, that the speaker holds two press conferences every week and that there is a lobby just off the House floor where reporters can interview members.

Agreed John Donnelly, a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and chair of the National Press Club Press Freedom Team, "Capitol Hill is a great place for access."

In contrast, he said, access in the Executive Branch, particularly in national security agencies, "is a great problem."

Both Buck and Jennifer Telhelm, communication director for Sen. Tom Udall, D-N. Mex., also agreed that relationships between members of Congress and the media are generally good.

Telheim acknowledged that there have been incidents in the Senate when reporters were asked not to tape interviews in certain locations. In an environment of "unprecedented hostility toward the media," it is understandable such requests are viewed with skepticism, she said.

Her comments pointed to a general source of tension on both sides of the Capitol: enforcement of rules that may or may not be written. Don Ritchie, Senate historian emeritus, said rules governing technologies such as telegraph, radio and TV evolved as these technologies were introduced.

In an era when anybody can record and make videos anywhere, "We are still grappling with how do we deal with the iPhone," he said.

Ritchie offered the perspective that relationships between Congress and the media have been strained since the first Congress.

Both Buck and Telheim expressed frustration that reporters may not have the background to understand the complexities of issues, particularly with media outlets experiencing higher turnover now than in the past. Nevertheless, both emphasized that they have good relationships with the media and expressed their desire to work with reporters.

Telheim pointed to another frustration. Because of today’s rapid transmission of information, she said, it's possible "being first takes precedence over being right."

Also, Telheim said, the decline in following "regular steps" in the legislative process makes it harder for reporters to inform the public. When legislation is introduced, questioned in committee hearings and debated on the floor, she explained, its contents are reported at each step. But when this normal legislative process is circumvented, such as in recent Senate legislation that has been developed behind closed doors, reporting suffers, she said.

In other limits to information reaching the public, the panel pointed to declines in the number of reporters covering individual executive departments and in regional reporters covering Congress.

Setting the tone for the discussion was Barbara Cochran, president of the Institute, whose introduction to the panel emphasized that media access on Capitol Hill matters because it underlies public access to information.