Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Media Try to Bar Access to the U.S. Capitol

Capitol Hill Junior High School, Or How the Media Kool Kidz Try to Bar Access to Your Government

In Montana, anyone can walk into the state Capitol and sit in on any meeting, press conference or other gathering, thanks to our state’s Open Meeting Law. You literally can sit in on everything. You want to watch the Democratic Senate caucus meeting? Go right ahead. You want to take notes on the Republican House caucus meeting? Totally fine. It is the ultimate in transparent democracy: anyone - reporter, citizen, activist, anyone - can see their government at work. The same cannot be said of the U.S. Capitol - and not because of any security concerns, but because there are certain people who have a very vested interest in preventing the public from seeing what’s going on.

This is the underlying subject of a very snarky, highly irresponsible, yet laugh-out-loud funny article on the Washington Post’s website that features yours truly. As Mary Ann Akers breathlessly "reports" in the first paragraph, after a committee of journalists denied me a temporary press credential for an article I was working on for the award-winning, 35-year-old magazine In These Times (which I am a senior editor at), I supposedly devised an ultra-devious, almost criminal plot to infiltrate the U.S. Capitol and - gasp! - interview senators like other reporters do. How did I do this? I got an intern pass from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who I was shadowing for the day as part of my article.

Of course, buried in the third to last paragraph, Akers notes that the very journalists who denied me a credential and are now criticizing me actually admitted that they were the ones who told me to get the intern pass in the first place. But that’s a minor 11th-paragraph-worthy detail to Akers - even if it destroys the entire premise of her supposed gotcha. (Another minor detail she forgot to mention was that the Businessweek reporter tried to cite a very old biography of me to justify her behavior, and then accused me of doctoring my website when she got called on the carpet, even though you can tell it’s an old biography because it still calls the Progressive States Network the Progressive Legislative Action Network - a name changed a long time ago).

It’s easy to dismiss this story as just the sad, juvenile high school nature of Capitol Hill, with me as the proverbial nerd, the Hill journalists as the Kool Kidz lording their Koolness over me by denying me a credential, and this Washington Post reporter behaving as the class gossip who treats everything that goes on as just one huge inside joke. But there’s something deeper and more troubling at work.

What we have here is a Beltway press corps that is watching its own relevance shrink thanks to new media (blogs, the internet, etc.) and in reaction, is trying to pull its last remaining levers of official power to preserve its own monopoly over what should be public information. In this case, a cadre of Capitol Hill’s corporate journalists used their credentialing discretion granted by Congress to limit access TO Congress - all in order to preserve their own exclusive access to official Washington. That the officials they are limiting access to are the people’s representatives is of no concern to these reporters - all that matters is making sure that, in an age of shrinking circulation/readership/subscribership/viewership for traditional media sources, traditional journalists are trying to convert public information into something “exclusive” - even though public information (in this case day-to-day congressional affairs) is supposed to be just that: public.

Make no mistake about it - there needs to be some basic security oversight of who gets to walk the halls of the Capitol. A criminal background check, for instance, is entirely appropriate for someone applying for a press credential. But being denied a credential on the basis of your political leanings is outrageous, to say the least. This is especially true when you consider that, according to the Capitol Press Gallery’s own website, the number of ultra-conservative partisans being credentialed grossly outnumbers the progressive writers granted the same credentials (Apparently, Fred Barnes, Rommesh Ponnuru and Byron York with their regular GOP talking points and wild-eyed screeds against Democrats are perfectly worthy of credentialing, but me - a senior editor at In These Times who has been published in major national newspapers - and other progressive journalists are supposedly unfit to report on Congress).

Maybe I’ve just become too used to real transparency out here in Montana. Maybe I have forgotten that we’re supposed to just accept that people in Washington will stop at nothing to assert their tiny fiefs of power and to satisfy their insecure desperation to feel important, even if such behavior tramples basic democracy for everyone else.

Or maybe, just maybe, the traditional, corporate-owned media is responding to its new problems in ways that seriously imperil the very transparency and First Amendment freedoms it purports to care about. I suspect the latter is exactly what’s going on. And if for a magazine article or for my next book I have to get an intern pass to tell that story and all the other tales of deceit and corruption going on in the U.S. Capitol, then it’s a tiny price of personal humiliation I’m willing to pay in order to once again document how our democracy is under siege.

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