The first problem was that WND is a website. Next problem, its relationship with the Western Journalism Center. Then it was Judicial Watch. Then Richard Mellon Scaife. Then Vince Foster. Then it was “not enough original content.”
Now – it’s Paul Sperry’s expired press pass.
The Senate Press Gallery – whose protracted 15-month battle with WorldNetDaily.com over press accreditation has been marked by a series of constantly moving “goalposts” for WND to reach – has thrown a new obstacle in front of the popular Internet newssite.
“It’s unbelievable,” said WorldNetDaily Editor and CEO Joseph Farah. “After being turned down without legitimate cause a full year after applying, after going to Washington in April for our appeal hearing, and after not hearing anything back from them for a month after our appeal – it became evident to all that the nonsensical case they had tried to make for denying WorldNetDaily press credentials had fallen apart. Now, in desperation, they’re impugning the character of our Washington bureau chief Paul Sperry, acknowledged as one of the most stand-up, capable reporters in Washington.”
Permanent press credentials are essential equipment for Washington-based journalists, allowing unfettered access to the U.S. Capitol and nearby House and Senate office buildings where important hearings are held, as well as access to political conventions and presidential inaugurations. Credentials are granted by the Senate Press Gallery, and decisions regarding which organizations will be accredited are made by the gallery’s five-member Standing Committee of Correspondents – currently comprising staffers from Bloomberg News, Reuters, Knight Ridder, Cox Newspapers and the Columbus Dispatch.
At WND’s April 15 hearing at the Capitol, Farah and attorney Richard Ackerman of the United States Justice Foundation, which is representing WND, presented evidence and countered the two arguments advanced by the standing committee for having denied WND press credentials.
Specifically, the committee has objected to what it calls “cross-over ownership” between the for-profit WorldNetDaily.com, Inc and Western Journalism Center, a 501(c)3 nonprofit from which it was spun off in 1999 – citing fears WND might somehow be engaged in lobbying activities on behalf of the non-profit organization that birthed it.
The panel also claimed that WorldNetDaily – which has thousands of original stories and columns permanently archived onsite, and has broken many major national stories in the past several years – does not carry enough “original content.” This, despite the fact that some of the more than 300 currently accredited daily news organizations consist of only one person and thus produce far less original content than WorldNetDaily.
At the hearing, during which Farah and Ackerman argued for a reversal of the committee’s earlier denial (a complete transcript of the hearing is available on the Senate Press Gallery’s website), the committee said it would render its decision within about two weeks.
But a full four weeks later, no word was forthcoming from the committee.
Then came the latest bomb.
In a harshly worded letter dated May 15, Bloomberg News’ William Roberts, chairman of the Standing Committee, accused Sperry of: 1) using the congressional press pass he had been issued while working for Investor’s Business Daily after he left that organization to work for WorldNetDaily; 2) failing to surrender his card when it expired; and 3) mistakenly telling the committee he had used his IBD pass at a time when it had already expired and been confiscated.
“Here we go again,” responded Farah. “As soon as we clear one hurdle, there comes another one. And the latest hurdle – this nitpicking attack on Paul Sperry – is totally unrelated to any of the reasons the committee has advanced up until now for denying accreditation to WorldNetDaily.”
Between the time WorldNetDaily applied for credentials on Feb. 8, 2001 and the standing committee’s official letter of denial one year later, WND’s sole contact with the Senate Press Gallery was with its deputy director, Joe Keenan.
“From the start,” recalls Farah, “Mr. Keenan has toyed with us by constantly finding new objections, new concerns, new obstacles to accrediting us. It’s so obvious that it’s actually embarrassing.”
- The first concern Keenan expressed early on to Sperry, who had filed the application and paid the required fees on WND’s behalf in February 2001, was that WorldNetDaily.com, Inc. was an Internet news organization, as opposed to a traditional print one.
“He wasn’t sure how to accredit a website,” recalls Sperry, “saying it was such a new medium, he wasn’t sure how the rules for print publications would apply.”
- Keenan’s next objection was concern that WorldNetDaily was owned and controlled by the non-profit Western Journalism Center, co-founded by Farah. WND was formally and legally and spun off as a for-profit corporation from WJC in October 1999, and, despite the fact that the non-profit journalism center owns stock in WND, the newssite is completely independent by every meaningful measure, says Farah.
- “The next obstacle to surface was Judicial Watch,” said Farah. “In phone conversations with Managing Editor David Kupelian and myself, Keenan would say there were questions over our ‘relationship’ with Judicial Watch. It’s ridiculous,” added Farah. “There is no relationship. We’re a news organization. Judicial Watch is a non-profit legal foundation.”
- After that, Keenan latched on to the notion that WorldNetDaily was funded by conservative millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
“Except, there’s no truth to that either,” said Farah. “WND has never received a penny from Scaife. But even if he did invest in WND, what difference could that possibly make? Why is that even brought up as an issue? It’s clear evidence of prejudice, since Scaife is a conservative, and we’ve contended all along that the gallery’s denial of our application is a flagrant case of content-based discrimination, pure and simple.”
- Then there was the concern over Vince Foster, the one-time White House lawyer and confidante of Bill Clinton who died under suspicious circumstances. Apparently, Keenan was concerned that in its early years, while WND was still part of the Western Journalism Center, Farah had promoted a series of journalistic reports pointing out the contradictions and unanswered questions related to Foster’s supposed suicide.
“What does our past coverage of Vince Foster have to do with WND’s right to be accredited?” asks Farah. “Nothing.”
- Then came the issue of original content – one of the two issues to which the standing committee ultimately staked its claim with regard to WND’s press credentials.
In his Feb. 8, 2002, letter turning down WorldNetDaily, Roberts wrote:
- To be accredited, online publications “must provide daily news with significant original reporting content.” We do not believe WorldNetDaily meets this threshold.
But the rules governing the standing committee say nothing whatever about non-profits, nor about the required number of reporters. Indeed, among the hundreds of daily news organizations accredited by the standing committee are non-profit organizations (Associated Press), church-sponsored news organizations (such as the Christian Science Monitor), and several one-man operations, such as the Bovard News Service.
To all appearances, and especially in light of the committee’s month-long delay in rendering a decision after the April appeal hearing, it appeared the two issues had been put to bed.
“We should have known better,” said Farah. “These guys apparently just really want to deny us the press credentials they so easily grant to tiny one-man shops, church-funded news organizations and even the propaganda arms of totalitarian governments such as China’s Xinhua News Agency and Beijing Daily.”
“Their arguments were shown to be baseless and illegal, and yet they had to find something else to attack. So they picked Sperry,” said Farah.
During the April hearing, Sperry – previously accredited by the standing committee when he worked in the same position for Investor’s Business Daily – mentioned freely that he had used his IBD press pass after having left the company to work for WorldNetDaily, even after the pass had expired. It was eventually confiscated after it had expired.
But during the hearing this seemed to irk the standing committee’s chairman, William Roberts, who wrote a harshly worded letter to Sperry on May 15, one month after the hearing:
- You received your Investor’s Business Daily credential in 1999 and it expired April 30, 2000, according to the Senate ID office. It was confiscated by the Capitol Police on January 18, 2001, more than eight months after it expired. You made your WorldNetDaily application on February 8, 2001, 20 days after your encounter with the police, and 1 year after joining WorldNetDaily.
In your appeal hearing, you said: “I still had my IBD, Investor’s Business Daily, hard pass which I was using. So I was going to hearings as well. I also went to Pardongate hearings. That was 2001.”
“At that time, it hadn’t expired yet. That’s when I applied for the WorldNetDaily application, seeing that it was going to expire.”
You said re: the period from February 8 to August 27, 2001: “So this whole time I’m having to use my Investors Business Daily hard pass with my photograph to get in to cover Congress.”
Asked why you used your IBD card after changing employment, you said: “How did I have any other choice if I had to continue to do my job when he was delaying over and over our application for consideration?”
Please explain why you told the committee you were using your IBD badge during a period of time after it had been confiscated by the Capitol Police for being eight-months expired. Please explain also why you waited one year to apply for WorldNetDaily credentials, and why you did not turn in your Investor’s Business Daily badge upon leaving IBD’s employment as required then.
Commenting on the accusations in Roberts’ letter, Sperry noted: “At the time the U.S. Capitol police took up my press badge, I did not know it had expired, though I obviously knew it would expire at some point. I was surprised, because other guards on the Senate side had also seen it just days earlier and waved me in. Nor did I know it was ‘required’ to turn in badges upon a change in employment. No one in the press gallery told me of such a policy. Nowhere is it stated on my application,” nor was it written anywhere on the badge, he said.
Added Farah: “Using an expired hard pass, especially in the pre-Sept. 11 environment in Washington when security concerns weren’t as highly strung as they are today, was just not a hanging offense.”
Indeed, it’s apparently fairly common, since earlier this month a reporter for the Washington Post had his expired press pass confiscated by the Capitol police.
In addition, Patrick Clawson, former member of the Standing Committee for Periodicals, stated during WND’s April hearing that reporters routinely were told to use their expired badges until new ones were granted.
“It’s mind-boggling that the standing committee appears to be trying to make the case that the Internet’s foremost independent, English-language newssite – relied on by 2.5 million readers – should be denied credentials because one of its reporters didn’t turn in his previous pass when it had expired and needed renewal,” said Farah.
Sperry – a veteran Washington investigative reporter who has broken many major stories in his career, and a Media fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution – corrected one error of fact he had made in his unsworn comments at the hearing:
“My recollection of the sequence of events was wrong on one count,” he said. “I covered the Pardongate hearings in early 2001 and assumed I got in with my IBD badge, but apparently I got into the building with one of my day passes.”
The real issue, says Sperry, is: “Why did Keenen suddenly slow-walk, if not stonewall, me on my badge-renewal application after I changed employers to WorldNetDaily? Keenan dragged his feet in processing our application, constantly changing his excuses for delays in correspondence and conversations with me and with WND’s editors.”
“Interestingly,” notes Sperry, “the Capitol police impounded my expired badge, according to Roberts’ account, on the very day that Mr. Keenan finally gave me the green light to come down to the gallery and pick up my presidential inauguration tickets. Keenan had given me the runaround over tickets for WorldNetDaily staffers for weeks prior to that day. We had even scheduled an earlier pick-up date, but when I arrived to pick up the tickets, whoops, Mr. Keenan said he did not have them. Not until I gently protested to his boss, who walked into the room, did we finally get the tickets, which required a return trip. Only, there was only one press box ticket in the envelope, as opposed to the three Mr. Keenan had promised.”
“The truth is,” said Farah, “Joe Keenan’s efforts to block WorldNetDaily’s journalistic access started even before we applied for credentials 15 months ago.”
For instance, Rebecca Hagelin, WorldNetDaily’s vice president of corporate communications, had a similarly difficult experience dealing with Keenan over obtaining tickets to the Republican and Democratic conventions in the summer of 2000.
The U.S. Justice Foundation’s Ackerman wrote a blistering response to Roberts regarding his letter to Sperry:
“We can only be left to believe that the Committee is no longer contending that its initial rationalizations, as set forth in the original denial of credentials for WorldNetDaily, are still at issue,” he wrote. “It seems clear that the Committee’s attention has dramatically shifted away from the idea that my clients are somehow lobbying and/or failing to provide significant daily news content within the meaning of Rule 4b or the 1996 Internet Policy.” Ackerman continued:
- In fact, the Committee still has not provided us with the documentary evidence needed to defend my client’s application. We were told that certain information (e-mails) was destroyed by your staff and any other request for information, that would assist the application process, was summarily denied. Our requests for other supporting evidence and for a clear statement of reasons for denial have consistently fallen on deaf ears.
In any event, the apparent shift in the Committee’s denial-paradigms is for good reason. The available evidence presented by way of our briefing and at the time of the argument in this matter suggests that the Committee had no valid basis for denial of credentials in this case. As the Committee well knows, my clients have as much, if not more, original content than many of your present and continuing members. As well, my clients are much more independent from non-profit and governmental entities than many other members of the Gallery. In fact, the documents relied upon by the Committee in denying the application only suggested a content and viewpoint-based justification for denying my client’s application. Oddly, it appears that focus has even drifted away from the generic and baseless idea that WorldNetDaily’s relationship to the Western Journalism Center is somehow important to acquiring credentials.
If it is the Committee’s present intention to shift the standard for credentialing to what Paul Sperry has or has not done, it is not on solid ground. The credentialing of WorldNetDaily.com, as an organization, should not be connected to this new line of inquiry under any legal or factual analysis.
First, you seem to be accusing Mr. Sperry of wrongdoing without directly stating what the Committee is somehow festering over or what WorldNetDaily has to do with this issue. We are particularly confounded since Mr. Keenan gave Mr. Sperry access to the Presidential Inauguration events on the very same day that his press pass was collected by the Capitol Police. Obviously, Mr. Keenan made absolutely no issue as to Mr. Sperry’s accreditation, as of that time, and voluntarily waived any objection to Mr. Sperry’s status as a bona fide reporter. These factual matters are provable by reference to log-in records and other records readily available to you. You have not included any of these matters in the list of documents relied upon by you in denying WorldNetDaily the access afforded to other similarly situated, or less situated, members of the Gallery.
Secondly, to our knowledge, there is absolutely no written policy, obvious custom, or other constructive notice (on the pass itself or otherwise) that could possibly have served to alert Mr. Sperry to the perceived difficulties now being raised by the Committee. If there is such a policy, the Committee certainly has not provided it to us, even though we asked for copies of all relevant policies and standards. Again, by all reasonable appearances, one can only be led to believe that the Committee is imposing yet one more subjective standard for credentialing on WorldNetDaily.com.
“My client cannot reasonably be expected to defend against an ever-moving and fluid standard for admission to the Gallery,” Ackerman concludes. “Given your recent correspondence, I might also add that they are entitled to be free of baseless accusations and innuendos as to their integrity as a news organization. Mr. Farah, Mr. Sperry, and WorldNetDaily have an impeccable record of experience, professionalism, and integrity in journalism. Your recent letter seemingly challenges this established reality. Indeed, given your own standards, customs, practices, and procedures, the Committee’s comments border on defamation of character.”
Among other things, Ackerman asked the committee for copies of other press passes collected by the Capitol police in the last two years.
As the long battle lurches into its next phase, the various players plan their moves.
Roberts, whose own Bloomberg News, ironically, was initially denied press credentials by the same Senate Press Gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents when it was the “new kid on the block” in 1989, has gone down a new road in denying WND accreditation, with his accusatory letter to Sperry.
Keenan is hard at work, trying desperately behind the scenes to cement his case that WND is somehow lobbying for the Western Journalism Center.
Sperry, eager to get back to reporting, remarks: “Despite the threatening tone of the letter, it’s unclear what Mr. Roberts is actually accusing me of. If I’m being accused of doing my job in covering Washington the best I can, as a professional journalist working for an upstart news organization in a promising new medium, I stand guilty as charged.” Sperry currently can gain access to any congressional event by first obtaining a day pass from the press gallery.
Farah, who recently moved to Washington, D.C., has just filed a second WorldNetDaily application with the Senate Press Gallery for a permanent press pass – this one for Farah himself.
“With greater restrictions on public access to elected officials and government events since Sept. 11, Americans must rely on journalists now more than ever to report what’s going on in Washington,” says Farah. “As a fearless watchdog on government, WND in particular needs a hard pass to adequately serve its millions of loyal readers.”
And Ackerman simply says: “Unless they recognize our First Amendment rights, we will be forced to file a lawsuit against the Senate Press Gallery to vindicate those rights.”
Indeed, the First Amendment seems to have been missing in action during this entire 15-month battle over press access.
As former periodical-gallery member Clawson told WorldNetDaily recently: “The First Amendment means nothing to these people. The taxpayers pay for this circus, public employees work in these galleries, and it is one of the most incestuous, pork-barrel operations you have ever seen – and nobody in the press will take it on.”
The Standing Committee, says Ackerman, appears to be engaged in “viewpoint-based discrimination” in denying WorldNetDaily full access to cover Congress, in violation of the news organization’s right to equal protection under the First Amendment. In fact, the U.S. Justice Foundation attorney calls the committee’s denial of WorldNetDaily’s application for permanent congressional press credentials “the most unconstitutional thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” concludes Farah. “We won’t give up – in fact, we haven’t even begun to fight.”
Read Joseph Farah’s column today, “Freedom of the press?”
Editor’s note: WorldNetDaily has a Legal Defense Fund, set up originally to help support the newssite in its litigation with Al Gore crony Clark Jones in Tennessee and other legal challenges we face from time to time. Readers who wish to donate to help in these matters may do so in two ways:
- Make a tax-deductible contribution to the U.S. Justice Foundation, the public-interest legal group that is handling WND’s case against the Senate Press Gallery in Washington. This same group is aiding in WND’s defamation case in Tennessee.
- If tax-deductibility is not an issue, readers may donate directly to WND’s Legal Defense Fund.