Washington reporters squawked on Tuesday that Congress was taking a page from Donald Trump and restricting the media’s access to senators. This time, they were wrong.
In a climate of increasingly hostile rhetoric aimed by Republicans at the media, punctuated Tuesday morning by yet another tweet from the president about the “Fake News Media,” reporters cried foul when staffers told them they couldn’t film in a Senate office building.
Turns out it was largely a miscommunication and an overzealous reading of the rules and was resolved within a few hours after a storm of protest.
“We’re a press friendly operation around here,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted to reporters.
But McConnell is shepherding a sweeping health care bill largely behind closed doors and reporters and Democrats quickly assumed that they were being further shut out.
“I see this as just another assault on the First Amendment,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a member of the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees press rules governing the Senate and the Capitol. “Obviously there are times when not everyone wants to be interviewed, but you don’t shut down the press.”
Tuesday’s contretemps started when TV reporters were told they could not film senators in the hallway of a Senate office building without prior consent from the senator and the Senate’s Rules Committee. Klobuchar, whose father was a sportswriter, said she believed current Senate policy calls for reporters to seek permission to film interviews, but that it’s been “common practice” to allow cameras in the hallways without such permission.
A tweet calling the ban a breach of “decades of precedent” ricocheted around the Capitol and beyond. Democrats pounced and the American Civil Liberties Union charged that “preventing the press from informing the public about the workings of their own government goes against the core values of our democracy.”
Several reporters urged their viewers to call to the Capitol.
Within a few hours and after a round of talks between staffers on the Senate Rules Committee and media representatives on Capitol Hill, the issue was resolved.
Coverage of Senate events “have not changed,” and interviews could resume, the press was told by Senate officials.
The Senate and representatives of the press have been in talks over how to more effectively and safely manage coverage in the Senate where large hordes of reporters thrusting recorders in senators’ faces is not uncommon.
But those talks are ongoing and nothing has changed: “A lot of people have complained, said the press gets in their way in aggressiveness. Fine, that’s part of the deal,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who chairs the Senate Rules Committee. “I told them to stand down.”
Tensions are fraying between lawmakers and the press, which has flooded the Capitol with reporters, eager to cover a new administration. In recent weeks, Senate staffers have sought to impose some controls, placing velvet ropes up to keep reporters from blocking the route to the Senate underground trolley.
The flareup also comes as the House prepares to swear in Greg Gianforte, the Montana congressman-elect who pled guilty to a misdemeanor assault Monday involving a reporter who had tried to interview him about the House version of the health care bill.
Most lawmakers on Capitol Hill, however, are accustomed to fielding questions from dozens of reporters who crowd around them. Those uneasy with interviews are known to head rapidly for the senator-only elevators, or often appear engrossed in a telephone conversation.
Some tell reporters that they don’t do hallways interviews and refer questions to their offices.
But Senate leadership insisted they didn’t want to put up further hurdles.
“We want to have a very open place around here where the media can interact with public officials,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., a member of Senate leadership. “I’m certainly happy with the way that works.”