In an extraordinary development, Republicans this week moved to prevent reporters from freely covering the Senate impeachment trial. Now, news organizations and journalists are challenging the restrictive new ground rules for journalists assigned to Capitol Hill.
The Capitol is one of the rare places in official Washington where journalists get direct access to lawmakers, elected officials and their staff members.
Correspondents who submit to an official credentialing process are granted broad access throughout the Capitol complex and never encounter restrictions in talking with members of Congress or others. Until now.
As reported by NPR, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger has imposed new requirements for the impeachment trial, pushed by the Republican leadership:
Reporters are now being confined to small cordoned-off sections in areas where unrestricted access was typically standard. They are being prevented from walking with senators to continue conversations — even when the senator involved is willingly participating.
Reporters also now may not approach senators for interviews in the halls surrounding the Senate chamber.
Now, nearly 60 news organizations signed a letter organized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Thursday urging Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to relax the new restrictions on reporters.
“Absent an articulable security rationale, Senate leaders, the Senate sergeant at arms, and the United States Capitol Police have an obligation to preserve and promote the public’s right to know,” the letter said. “Reporters must have the ability to respond quickly to rapid developments and need reasonable access to lawmakers who wish to speak to the press.”
Patricia Gallagher Newberry, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, faulted the new Senate restrictions because they deny reporters the ability to fully cover a once-in-a-generation event.
“To deny journalists their constitutional right to document the historical events occurring now is a gross injustice to the American people,” she said.
“The press is charged with holding the government accountable. It is through its access that the public is informed. When the public is informed, it can make better decisions. The American public should also be outraged about these restrictions.”
Angela Greiling Keane, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, warned that the prospect of these continued restrictions could chill reporters’ ability to cover big events or even normal business in the Capitol in the future.
“These restrictions set a horrible precedent and reinforce the lie that the news media is dangerous and the ‘enemy of the people,’ ” Keane said. “Congress should be the most accessible institution in government. As the branch closest to the people, it is ironic that these limits only isolate those who are elected to serve.”