National Press Club

National Press Club, Journalism Institute say 'No' to Senate press gatekeeper

June 13, 2017

The following statement was released yesterday by the National Press Club and its Journalism Institute:

Of all the assaults on press freedom we have experienced this year one of the most disheartening is the one that happened today in the place we least expected it.

The U.S. Capitol is the People’s House and for most of its existence, those who work there have been proud of that fact and have worked hard to keep it that way. One of the boldest statements about the openness of American society was when congressional leaders insisted on reopening the Capitol the day after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Yet on Tuesday, this openness was seriously jeopardized. Multiple reporters who cover Congress were told they could no longer interview senators without permission from a Senate Rules Committee lawyer, effectively making a political appointee a gatekeeper for journalists trying to access public officials.

“Reporters are the representatives of the public. They should not have to ask permission to ask a question of the public’s elected representatives,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

No one is more aware of the difficulties of balancing security and access at the U.S. Capitol better than the reporters who work there. That is one of the reasons that the National Press Club and its Journalism Institute, along with many of the undersigned organizations, are planning a summit of newsmakers and news-gatherers, where we hope to discuss these challenges and come up with solutions that will deliver for the public we all serve.

We understand that negotiations have been underway between the Capitol Hill press galleries, which represent the reporters who work there, and Senate officials about managing traffic. But this policy appears to have been implemented without consultation with the reporters who have been working in good faith and without even the full consent of the Rules Committee. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who is her party’s top ranking member on the panel, told reporters that Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., “never talked to me.”

Hours later, after an eruption of protest from many of his Senate colleagues and members of the Capitol Hill press corps, Shelby assured reporters that the rules had not changed and that the objectionable restrictions were the result of a “miscommunication.”

We remain concerned that such constitutionally questionable practices were even discussed at all.

“The Radio TV Correspondents Association’s Executive Committee announced Tuesday that it is ‘in discussion’ with the Senate Rules Committee and hopes to address its concerns without compromising reporters First Amendment freedoms,” said Jeff Ballou, president of the National Press Club. “We support that effort.” Ballou, a former member of RTCA’s executive committee, offered to help mediate any talks.

The National Press Club is “The World’s leading professional organization for journalists.”

The club’s non-profit Journalism Institute works to advance the profession by providing training and advocating for press freedom.

Contact: Kathy Kiely, Press Freedom Fellow, National Press Club Journalism Institute, kkiely@press.org