As if the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump wasn’t already shaping up to be a chest-thumping, partisan-trumpeting circus of chaos and manufactured, overhyped drama, now Americans won’t even get complete news coverage.
The Capitol press corps, the fully credentialed reporters and photographers interacting every day already with senators and others, have been declared a “threat” for these proceedings, according to Roll Call and others’ coverage. Rather than allowing the journalists to work as they normally do, they will be confined to a “press pen.”
“No movement will be allowed outside the corrals, and reporters and photographers will need to be escorted to and from the pen,” Roll Call reported. “Journalists’ time-honored practice of ‘strolling’ with lawmakers — the walking, talking, and relationship-building considered necessary by many resident reporters in the Capitol — is one that the new security apparatus will squelch during the trial.”
Americans can rally behind the Society of Professional Journalists in calling out this unprecedented crackdown on media access, put in place by the Senate sergeant-at-arms and Capitol Police. Put simply, it is an “unacceptable and an outrageous breach of press freedom,” SPJ said in a statement received by the News Tribune Opinion page.
Last week, the Standing Committee of Correspondents, which represents the daily press galleries in the U.S. House and Senate, formally asked the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration to do the reasonable thing here by reconsidering these media restrictions and restoring the corps’ normal level of open access. SPJ quickly announced its support for the Standing Committee’s “stance against the ridiculous restrictions (on journalists who simply are) trying to document this historical event for the American public.”
These restrictions aren’t against rogue reporters, fringy bloggers, or unknown online writers planning to parachute in for a splash-and-dash and who’d pose legitimate security concerns. These restrictions are being put on the Capitol press corps, which is exhaustively vetted and well-known and respected among newsmakers and others in D.C.
Even more disheartening, when the unreasonable restrictions were being set, the press corps’ reps were snubbed from the process, the Standing Committee said. All of its suggestions were rejected “without an explanation of how the restrictions contribute to (senators’) safety rather than simply limit coverage of the trial.”
SPJ National President Patricia Gallagher Newberry used even stronger words. Her alarm can be shared by all freedom-supporting Americans interested in preserving their right to know.
“The new security measures are unnecessary and will do nothing but harm the coverage and documentation of this historic moment,” Newberry 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.”
The legitimate free press and its commitment to accuracy, fairness, and inclusion of all viewpoints is critical to our representative democracy. Limiting press coverage shortchanges the public’s right to be informed participants as much as it hampers journalists’ constitutionally protected right to document and report.
Such action taken by our government is especially concerning at a moment as historically important and as vulnerable to spin as a presidential impeachment trial.
The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration can do the reasonable and right thing here and rescind any plans for a “press pen.” Let the press corps do its job on behalf of the American people.