We've covered the recent troubles the popular SCOTUSblog
has had in trying to secure a press pass to the Supreme Court. As we've noted SCOTUSblog is basically the
go to source for any reporting on the Supreme Court. On days when the court releases new rulings or whether it will hear certain cases, people flood to the blog to pay attention, rather than other news sources that are not nearly as comprehensive or detailed. And yet, because the Supreme Court (oddly) relies on whether or not reporters have press credentials at the Senate, SCOTUSblog has been in an awkward situation. It had a press pass for its main reporter, Lyle Denniston, but that credential was revoked
recently. The blog appealed, but in something of a travesty, to do so it had to grovel to its competitors
, since existing reporters with Senate press credentials are given the guild-like power to exclude new members.
And that's just what they've done again: rejecting SCOTUSblog's appeal
Underscoring the irony, as the blog's publisher Tom Goldstein notes, is the fact that the Standing Committee of Correspondents that made this decision sent it around just as the latest Supreme Court rulings were coming out, and about 10,000 readers were all watching the SCOTUSblog's live blog about it. Adding more insult, the Senate Gallery released that decision to others
in the press, so that SCOTUSblog found out about it on Twitter
from others, rather than directly.
The key issue is that SCOTUSblog's publisher is Tom Goldstein, and he's a lawyer who practices before the court. The competing journalists suggest that this violates their existing rules about not allowing a non-independent organization that "lobbies" before the government to get a press pass. Of course, last time around, Goldstein noted that numerous state-owned media properties, who clearly lobbied before the government were given press passes. And this time, he notes that it's really seemed like his competitors were basically looking for any reason at all to deny them a press pass:
Today, it settled on the fact that practicing lawyers publish and write for the blog. The Committee takes the view that the blog is not editorially independent from my law firm or from other lawyers who write for the blog. As a consequence, the Committee found, the blog violates two independent requirements under the Committee's Rules: any credentialed publication must be editorially independent from an organization that (i) "lobbies the federal government"; or (ii) "is not principally a general news organization."
However, as Goldstein notes, this is a pretty silly distinction, because based on a broad reading of those two prongs, almost no one should qualify.
Begin with the fact that the decision applies equally to publications in any field, whether health care, automobiles, technology, education, or anything else. It is not dependent on the fact that I work for a law firm that practices before the Supreme Court. The Committee deems it sufficient that the firm is not principally a news organization. So its reasoning extends equally to any publication that is produced by someone who plays dual roles, one of which isn't a news organization.
As a result, the purpose and effect of the Standing Committee's decision is to limit credentialing to traditional media in every field. The Rules contemplate that there can be a direct relationship between a publication and non-news organization – they just must be editorially independent. But the Committee construes that requirement of independence in the broadest way possible: to forbid an overlap in personnel.
Given that, while Goldstein doesn't say it, it does raise serious questions about others. For example, the head of the committee who rejected SCOTUSblog's appeal works for the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ is owned by News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch is somewhat famous for meddling in matters of government. So, um, isn't the WSJ not editorially independent of someone looking to lobby the government? And, yes, the WSJ has editorial policies that claim to make it independent, but so does SCOTUSblog, and Goldstein notes that apparently is not enough.
Furthermore, Goldstein makes a much more important point: there's a reason why SCOTUSblog is so respected. And part of that is because
of their expertise:
We are experts in the Supreme Court in large part because we practice before the Supreme Court. Lyle has over five decades of experience as a journalist covering the Court. But the rest of us have acquired our knowledge through many years litigating in front of the Justices. That expertise lets us cover the Court well, and it gives our coverage added credibility. The same will be true across the infinite number of fields to which its rationale applies.
In fact, the Committee does not seem to doubt that. It does not see these rules as an obstacle, so long as every one of us now quits our jobs as practicing lawyers and commits ourselves exclusively to the same occupation as the Committee members. But so long as any of us continues to practice, we lack editorial independence.
Furthermore, this theory of reporters only being able to be reporters if they're only reporters and aren't practitioners creates other problems, especially in an age when experts can become publishers with the simple push of a button.
This scenario – specialists reporting on their respective fields of expertise – is going to grow, not diminish. Traditional media is contracting. Non-traditional, expert media is expanding, including because we have access to inexpensive distribution through the Internet. We do not need a printing press.
It seems a shame to erect obstacles to access when organizations like ours share the values and further the goals of journalism. We reach a lot of people. No organization in the nation's history has devoted nearly the resources we have in covering this important institution. The Committee does not seem to doubt that our actual coverage is comprehensive and thoughtful.
Goldstein is going to appeal this decision even further, but has no idea if it will be overturned. Part of the problem here seems to be an antiquated view of what journalism really is in this day and age. And part of the problem seems to just be institutional jealousy by reporters acting as gatekeepers who don't want to let the new guy into the party. Either way, it speaks horribly about the cliquey nature of traditional journalism and their unwillingness to recognize how the internet works.