WASHINGTON – E-mails showing a pattern of delay and possible obfuscation in processing WorldNetDaily.com, Inc.’s application for congressional press accreditation were recently purged from U.S. Senate Daily Press Gallery computers, the official who handled the application revealed Monday at a Senate hearing.
Other evidence key to the newssite’s case will remain secret, gallery lawyers have decided, citing congressional rules.
WorldNetDaily is appealing a Feb. 8 decision by the Standing Committee of Correspondents to deny it permanent press credentials. The popular newssite, with more than 2.5 million readers, applied for credentials a full year earlier, on Feb. 8, 2001. A decision on the appeal is expected within two weeks.
The committee objects to what it calls “cross-over ownership” between the for-profit newssite and Western Journalism Center, a 501(c)3 non-profit from which it was spun off in 1999. The panel also claims the site does not carry enough “original content.”
But a lawyer for WorldNetDaily argues that the Senate-controlled committee – made up of staffers from Bloomberg News, Reuters, Knight Ridder, Cox Newspapers and the Columbus Dispatch – is more concerned with the political nature of WorldNetDaily content, judging from 27 articles it picked as samples – most of which had “conservative” in the headline.
The committee also was under the erroneous impression that the site is associated with Judicial Watch and Richard M. Scaife, WND founder and Editor Joseph Farah pointed out at the hearing. He said it looks like gallery officials have a political vendetta.
Richard Ackerman, lawyer for the non-profit public-interest United States Justice Foundation, said that the committee appears to be engaged in “viewpoint-based discrimination” in denying WorldNetDaily full access to cover Congress.
If so, he warned, it would be a violation of the news organization’s right to equal protection under the First Amendment.
Committee chairman Bill Roberts of Bloomberg dismissed such concerns as “legal static.”
He said in his February letter that WND “must provide daily news with significant original reporting content” to pass the bar for accreditation.
But at Monday’s hearing, Roberts could not define “significant.” Ackerman called the committee’s method for determining original content “unscientific.”
Also, Ackerman noted that gallery lawyers refused to provide documentation shedding light on how other applicants, such as Planetgov.com, Al-Ahram International and Xinhua News Agency, were evaluated when they were approved. The lawyers said Congress is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by Ackerman.
“There’s clearly a problem with secrecy in the
gallery,” said veteran Washington newsman Patrick
Clawson, who was a member of the Senate’s Standing
Committee for Periodicals from 1989-91.
Clawson, who volunteered to speak on WorldNetDaily’s behalf at the hearing, called “unlawful” Roberts’ questioning of Farah, during which he pried into the newsgathering practices and financial history of the site.
“I’ve never seen anything so offensive in my life,” Clawson said.
While Clawson was speaking, committee member Jim Kuhnhenn of Knight Ridder motioned to an official, who in turn left the hearing room. Within minutes, three
Capitol police officers appeared at the door.
Hard-pressed to explain the yearlong delay in processing WND’s application, Roberts claimed that he and other members didn’t know anything about the site and had to research it — even though Paul Sperry, WND’s Washington bureau chief, attached a cover letter
to the Feb. 8, 2001, application explaining how WND makes money, where and when it was incorporated, what it covers and how many people visit the site.
Roberts pointed out that the gallery had offered WND
day-pass access to Congress in lieu of permanent clearance — meaning reporters would have to check in
with gallery officials each time they wanted to cover an event or conduct an interview on the Hill.
Gallery deputy director Joe Keenan at first claimed Sperry did not take the gallery up on the offer.
But at the hearing, Sperry explained that, in fact, he did use the day-pass on more than one occasion, and produced an old paper press pass time-stamped by the gallery.
“We want full, unfettered access, just as you’ve offered Xinhua and other state-run organs,” Sperry told the committee.
“We’re professional journalists,” he added. “We don’t need Mr. Keenan to hold our hands every time we want to cover something in these halls.”
Farah said hard passes are now sine qua non for working journalists in Washington given heightened security since Sept. 11 terrorism. And with greater restrictions on public access to elected officials and government events, Americans must rely on journalists now more than ever to report what’s going on in Washington. As a fearless watchdog on government, WND in particular needs such a hard pass to adequately serve its millions of loyal readers, he said.
Sperry, who previously was credentialed by the Senate gallery and had a hard pass as Washington bureau chief of Investor’s Business Daily, said that before Keenan’s offer, he was forced to use his old pass to cover Congress while the committee “dragged its feet” in reviewing WND’s application.
Keenan first told Sperry the committee would meet on WND’s request on April 23. Then he said it would be
late June or early July. Then Labor Day. (A gallery lawyer at the hearing said members first discussed WND
at a meeting on May 5 — a Saturday.) Keenan communicated with Sperry by telephone and e-mail.
Asked for the e-mails, Keenan said they’ve been deleted.
“Our e-mail automatically disappears from our system,”
A Senate Archives spokeswoman, however, said that all
“record material,” including e-mails, must be saved
electronically or in paper form by Senate staffers.
A committee member claimed Sperry was under obligation
to turn in his expired IBD badge per instructions on
the back of the badge.
But a spokesman for the photo ID center in the Senate Dirksen Building confirmed that old badges carried no such instructions.
Further, Clawson says that reporters routinely were told to use their expired badges until new ones were granted.
Asked by Sperry if Bloomberg settled for day-pass access when it started out, Roberts declined comment.
Bloomberg had problems getting approved at first. Now, ironically enough, it’s head media gatekeeper on the Hill.
Read Joseph Farah’s column today, What I told press police