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Letter From the Editor: The Outdated Press Credential System

One second after the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act was made public, I got an iPhone alert from Bloomberg News reporting that President’s Obama’s signature law had been upheld.

That quick and totally accurate report stood in sharp contrast to the much more confused and often wrong reporting by the likes of CNN, Fox News, and others, especially during the first hour or so.

One of the Poynter Institute writers, Mallary Jean Tenore, wrote about how all this came down and pointed out an irony that Food Safety News can relate to because we find ourselves in the same boat.

We learned from Ms. Tenore that Bloomberg’s ace at the Supremes is SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston, who has been covering the high court for 54 years.

The irony is that the best reporting for the most important judicial case in a generation came from a source — SCOTUSblog — that does not have press credentials for the Supreme Court.

Mr. Denniston has court credentials because he also works for WBUR in Boston, but other SCOTUSblog reporters have to get daily passes.

The hitch is that both the White House and the Supreme Court rely on the systems used by Congress for credentialing reporters.

Committees of old media people essentially run the Senate and House press galleries and they don’t cotton much to change.

Rules that are now used to keep new media out have changed little since the 1950s.  A big one for them is that media must be funded by some combination of advertising and subscriptions.

Much like Food Safety News being sponsored by the Marler Clark law firm, Bloomberg Law–the unit mostly known for providing online legal data and research services to lawyers, sponsors SCOTUSblog.

SCOTUSblog has so far been unable to get through the first credentialing hurdle by getting into either the House or Senate galleries. In 2010, it was told it “failed to show” SCOTUSblog is separate from the law firm.

Truth be told, what the whole press credentialing system has to offer is far less today than even 20 years ago. It used to be that without credentials, you did not have access to phones and typewriters. Today, Starbucks provides all the space one needs for working from an iPhone and MacBook.

The real bugaboo is security. Washington D.C. today is an armed camp with security lines at every turn. Permanent press credentials are most prized for getting around security lines or at least going through the ones for people with passes.

Food Safety News has not applied for Congressional press credentials. We’ve added advertising to our business model with some success. But how much would we have to have before they’d let us in the club? Nobody knows, ’cause the rules are vague.

This does not mean we would not like to obtain credentials. Helena Bottemiller, our Washington D.C. correspondent has earned great respect for her reporting from the nation’s capital and we have a huge readership base in the federal city and its surrounding suburbs.

But in the fast-moving world we live in, we have not had the six months the gallery committees promise to take on anyone going through their processes.

More important is something SCOTUSblog Publisher Tom Goldstein said to Ms. Tenore: “I feel that we showed that a specialized ‘vertical’ — a deep team with focused expertise — can contribute to reporting.”

A “specialized vertical ” is great description for SCOTUSblog, Food Safety News, and several other special news sites I could name.

It is unfortunate that some of the recognition sites like ours have received occurred because we have replaced the reporting that was once done old media, organizations no longer able to sell enough advertising or keep enough subscribers.

But that’s the way it is. The fact that our economic models are different and evolving does not have anything to do with our journalism. It’s too bad one of these Congressional galleries couldn’t meet for six months on its own and figure that out.

They too probably all got the court’s word on Obama Care from the excellent reporting of the Bloomberg-sponsored SCOTUSblog. Evidence of practicing serious journalism should be enough to get into gallery clubs. Period.

A late Sunday correction: Helena reminded me that we did apply for those press gallery credentials in 2011 and got a telephone turndown, citing this section of the rules:

The applicant must reside in the Washington, D.C. area, and must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. government, or in prosecuting any claim before Congress or any federal government department, and will not do so while a member of the Daily Press Galleries.

Applicants’ publications must be editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government, or that is not principally a general news organization.

Her interpretation at the time was the gallery did not like our sponsorship by a law firm.

I might add that while it is a law firm that has from time to time exercised its right to petition the government and on occasion helped its clients to the same, it is does not lobby on any level and certainly not at the federal level.

My solution is that these press galleries living in public space be disbanded and the Congressional police come up with a system of providing security credentials for private parties whose jobs require that they frequent the federal campus.

I just want a way of keeping our reporter from having to stand in a half dozen of those security lines every day!

© Food Safety News
  • SCOTUSBlog is the only source I go to about Constitutional issues and decisions. They are extraordinary in their coverage; meticulous in their accuracy.
    And FSN is a primary source for food safety, and I agree with you about Helen Bottemiller’s work.
    It is a shame that DC doesn’t get with the times.

  • I’ve had the same problems with Mesh Medical Device News Desk, which is sponsored by lawyers, but a firewall is up with the editorial dept. Journalists say this can’t be journalism. I say “what are the good business models these days?” I predict we’ll see more of this as journos still want to practice their craft. After all the NY Times takes ads for BMW- does that mean they are shilling for them?

  • lin sasman

    thanks for the website link and information
    I passed it along to my journalists and political news-follower friends