The Senate Press Gallery, which grants permanent congressional press passes to hundreds of news organizations – from the ubiquitous Associated Press to tiny one-man operations, from college papers to the official propaganda organs of totalitarian nations – has denied the same accreditation to the Internet’s leading independent newssite, WorldNetDaily.com.
A permanent congressional press pass is an essential tool for Washington-based journalists, since it allows unfettered access to many key government offices, congressional hearings, press conferences and the like. Currently, more than 300 daily publications of all conceivable types are accredited by the gallery – even foreign government-owned-and-controlled press organs such as Egypt’s Al-Ahram, the Beijing Daily, and the Vietnam News Agency.
Took 1 year to decide
WorldNetDaily applied Feb. 8, 2001 to the Senate Press Gallery, and what is normally a straightforward process has taken one year, as the Standing Committee of Correspondents finally has voted against accrediting WorldNetDaily.
The reasons? Deputy Director Joe Keenan, WorldNetDaily’s sole contact in the Senate Press Gallery for the past year, claims there were several: 1) the fact that the Western Journalism Center, from which WorldNetDaily.com, Inc. spun off as a for-profit corporation in October 1999, owns stock in WND; 2) the determination that WorldNetDaily doesn’t have enough reporters; 3) the determination that the newssite doesn’t have enough original content; and 4) the fact that WorldNetDaily runs ads for books and other products mixed in with the news.
In a Feb. 8, 2002, letter received yesterday by WorldNetDaily – written exactly one year after the newssite’s application and fees were submitted – Bloomberg News Chairman William Roberts, who currently serves as chairman of the Standing Committee of Correspondents, explained the committee’s reasons for denying WorldNetDaily:
- This letter is to inform you the Standing Committee of Correspondents at its meeting on January 29, 2002, voted unanimously to decline your application for press credentials.
The Standing Committee has long held that publications operated, funded or affiliated with tax-free special interest or issue advocacy groups do not qualify for accreditation. WorldNetDaily was founded and operated as part of the Western Journalism Center, a non-profit advocacy group. The Western Journalism Center continues to own a significant interest in WorldNetDaily.
The committee recognizes the emergence of electronic publications as a legitimate extension of the print tradition. To be accredited, online publications “must provide daily news with significant original reporting content.” We do not believe WorldNetDaily meets this threshold.
If you wish the committee to reconsider its decision, you may request a hearing. You may also reapply in the future should WorldNetDaily’s corporate structure and business model change.
Standing Committee of Correspondents
At WorldNetDaily’s request, Keenan forwarded all “rules and guidelines” that govern the standing committee’s deliberations over applications for press credentials. But there were no written rules among them dealing with non-profit status.
Pressed further to identify exactly which section of the rules deal with the non-profit issue that has disqualified WorldNetDaily, Keenan e-mailed the following excerpts yesterday:
- Members of the Press Galleries shall not engage in lobbying or paid advertising, publicity, promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the Federal Government.
2. Persons desiring admission to the press galleries of Congress shall make
application in accordance with Rule 6 of the House of Representatives, subject
to the direction and control of the Speaker and Rule 33 of the Senate, which
rules shall be interpreted and administered by the Standing Committee of
Correspondents, subject to the review and an approval by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.
“He’s got to be kidding,” responded WorldNetDaily.com, Inc. CEO and Editor Joseph Farah. “They’ve transformed the fact that WND was legally and properly spun off as an independent, for-profit corporation from its non-profit roots into a caricature of WND as engaging in ‘lobbying or paid advertising, publicity, or promotion work’ for some other organization.”
The notion that WorldNetDaily is now “operated, funded or affiliated” with a non-profit advocacy group “is absurd,” added Farah. “The fact that the Western Journalism Center owns a minority of our stock is a far cry from our being the journalistic mouthpiece of the Center. It’s amazing that the standing committee is making such a case.”
Ironically, the Associated Press itself is a non-profit organization, a point Farah made to Keenan – and one with which the deputy director agreed, according to Farah.
“This decision smacks of insecurity and bias on the part of the standing committee,” commented Rebecca Hagelin, WND’s vice president for communications. “They obviously feel threatened by a news organization with the guts, success and pizzazz of WND.com. WorldNetDaily is different from the establishment press in this way: We’re one of the few media outlets that has dared to criticize and point out how the media, in general, have failed to carry out the original mission of the press envisioned by our Founding Fathers – to serve as a watchdog on government.”
‘Fishing for new reasons’
“All of the excuses we have been given over this period of time represent nothing more than that – excuses,” said Farah. “The Senate Press Gallery keeps fishing for new reasons why we should be denied accreditation. As soon as we knock one down, another bogus question – having nothing to do with the group’s published rules and regulations – emerges.”
Since making application a year ago, senior management of WorldNetDaily has followed up regularly and repeatedly with Keenan, and each time, says Farah, “the goalposts have been moved.”
For instance, Keenan’s initial reservation about WorldNetDaily, as expressed to the newssite’s Washington bureau chief Paul Sperry, was that WND is an independent Internet publication – that is, not a spin-off of any traditional offline news organization. Keenan told Sperry he didn’t know how the committee would evaluate an application from an independently owned Internet news publication, implying there was no precedent for it.
Next, said Farah, “the concern was with what the committee apparently thought was the non-profit status of WorldNetDaily. But as I explained to Keenan repeatedly, over the course of a year, we are a for-profit corporation. After our repeated explanations, and his own research, Keenan led us to believe our non-profit origin would probably not be an issue.”
Oddly, as one roadblock was apparently cleared, another surfaced.
For instance, late last year Keenan asked WND what its relationship was to Judicial Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest legal firm, indicating the standing committee was concerned about perceived ties to the group. WorldNetDaily has no connection to Judicial Watch.
‘Bona fide working press’
The basic requirement listed on the Gallery application for accreditation is: “Membership in the Press Galleries is restricted to bona fide working press living in the Washington, D.C., area and working for newspapers or news services engaged in the daily dissemination of the news.”
The rules were amended in 1996 to include Internet publications:
- The Standing Committee recognizes the emergence of electronic publications as a legitimate extension of the print tradition, and will provide credentials to bona fide, Washington-based reporters for those organizations which, in the Committee’s judgment, are engaged in the daily publication of general interest news for dissemination to a wide segment of the general public.
To be eligible for consideration, an applicant must demonstrate that it meets the following, minimum criteria: (a) It must provide daily news with significant original reporting content. (b) It must charge a market rate fee for subscriptions or access, or carry paid advertising at current market rates.
WorldNetDaily.com currently attracts enormous traffic amounting to more than 2.5 million unique visitors monthly. After almost five years of operation, the popular seven-day-a-week newssite has thousands of original news stories and columns permanently archived on-site, is frequently cited by other media such as the Associated Press and the Washington Post, and has been responsible for breaking many major national news stories.
Keenan questioned Farah as to the number of full-time reporters WorldNetDaily has, implying there might not be enough to qualify for accreditation. (In fact, the one-man operation of columnist James Bovard – the Bovard News Service – is accredited by the standing committee.)
WND currently employs 13 full-time editorial people, including a full-time roving foreign correspondent. In addition, WND contracts for services with numerous part-time reporters, and features some 40 original, exclusive columnists – more than any newspaper in the country. Its reporters, editors and exclusive columnists are frequent guests on network and cable television.
Before coming to WorldNetDaily in early 2000 as Washington bureau chief, Sperry held the same position with Investors’ Business Daily, and was accredited by the Gallery. He currently is required to obtain a daily press pass each and every time he covers Congress, as he has been denied the same permanent congressional press credential he had back then.
“WorldNetDaily.com has attracted a huge following in a very short time, has broken more national stories than anyone on that committee can ever hope to, and has done so with a streamlined budget and some of the best reporters and editors in the business,” said Hagelin. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult for other news companies to justify their own tremendous overheads and large staffs with WND.com cranking out a continuous barrage of hard-hitting investigative stories.”
Indeed, WorldNetDaily.com, Inc. – since 1999 a for-profit corporation – is one of the very few Internet news companies that has become actually profitable since the great “dotcom meltdown” of the past two years, as BusinessWeek Online reported recently. Yet, Keenan says ironically, the Standing Committee of Correspondents is troubled that the newssite markets products. But it is the sale of products, coupled with advertising revenues, that actually allows the online news organization to operate as a for-profit company, which the committee insists accredited news organizations must be.
Speculating on the standing committee’s possible motives, Hagelin added: “If the press gallery’s motive is to silence us, to discourage us, or to keep us from the core of government activity, they will soon realize that WND.com is a news agency that not only welcomes this fight, but will eventually win. On behalf of the millions of readers we serve, of an American public that now expects the truth from the media, we will fight this battle for accreditation until we have the same access to our government leaders currently provided to foreign government-controlled papers and the ‘establishment press’ here at home.”
For his part, Farah thinks the standing committee is grasping at straws.
“I am 100 percent convinced,” he said, “after a year of playing footsie with the Senate Press Gallery, that WorldNetDaily has been systematically discriminated against by this group because it doesn’t like our reporting style – which is aggressive, fiercely independent and focuses on investigative digging into government fraud, waste, corruption and abuse.”
“There’s simply no other explanation for being singled out,” he added. “It’s time for the Senate Press Gallery to stop playing politics with WorldNetDaily’s First Amendment rights. It amounts to nothing less than prior restraint. I would expect more from a group that is supposed to represent the interests of journalists. But, evidently, the Senate Press Gallery is more interested in protecting the sacred cows of the beltway business-as-usual crowd.”
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