SCOTUSblog can’t get credentialed, but news agencies owned by foreign states can

SCOTUSblog | The New York Times | Digital Media Law Project | Nieman

SCOTUSblog Editor Amy Howe was at a “genuine disadvantage” when covering a recent U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, SCOTUSblog Publisher Tom Goldstein writes. That’s because the U.S. Senate revoked the news organization’s press pass in April.

Neither the Senate nor the Supreme Court “has explained what is going on,” Adam Liptak writes for The New York Times, “though everybody knows what concerns them: Thomas C. Goldstein, the blog’s publisher, also argues before the Supreme Court.”

Goldstein vowed to appeal that decision not, least because a Senate press pass should pave the way for SCOTUSblog to get a credential to cover the Supreme Court. And some of the organizations the Senate has credentialed, he notes, are owned outright by foreign governments including China’s Xinhua News Agency and the Saudi Press Agency, and both countries lobby Congress as well.

The Senate’s Standing Committee for press credentials was not receptive to the appeal, Goldstein writes:

No member of the Committee even acknowledged the recognition by others that the blog is engaged in high-quality journalism. The closest it came was the chair’s firm statement that the Committee had a duty not to bow to “public pressure.” That seems to miss the point.

The result of the Standing Committee’s interpretation of its rules will, unless overturned, cause the Gallery to function as sort of an exclusionary guild. That isn’t an insult. There are lots of guilds, and there always have been. Lawyers famously block para-professionals from doing legal work (which would reduce the costs of legal services) on the theory that only a law degree can provide the necessary training.

But there is a big difference here. A group of reporters has been given the odd responsibility to allocate a very important public resource: special access to the part of the government they cover.

Indeed, SCOTUSblog — which has won a Peabody Award for its court coverage — has always been clear that it’s a project of Goldstein’s law firm. Goldstein said last year he intends to sell the site but not because of the credential problem; in fact, he told the Associated Press’ Mark Sherman last year, he thinks being credentialed would help facilitate a sale.

Jeffrey Hermes, one of the authors of a new report on press credentialing practices in the U.S., told Nieman’s Joseph Lichterman it was “somewhat troublesome” to see “the use of essentially shorthand terms or determining factors which don’t necessarily relate to an individual’s ability to inform the public.”

The idea about looking at something like employment as a determining factor — especially when we know so much journalistic activity in the country is now happening at the freelance level. Those are the type of standards where it would be nice to see a broader approach, a shift that recognizes other forms of legitimate journalistic activity.

Related: Here’s a list of the reporters and news organizations the Supreme Court credentialed for the October 2013 term.

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