WASHINGTON – The fundamental job of journalists in this town, at least in their traditional role as government watchdogs, is to keep politicians honest so they don’t abuse their power.
But what if the journalists aren’t honest, and what if they abuse their power?
Five journalists known collectively as the Standing Committee of Correspondents for the Senate Daily Press Gallery have the little-known but exceptional power of choosing fellow scribes to cover Congress with them through a loosely defined, largely unregulated procedure not much unlike choosing sides for a game of stickball.
Their veto power is not limited to the legislative branch. They also can prevent reporters from covering key presidential events, such as the national party conventions, Inauguration Day and the State of the Union.
If you don’t get a press pass from them, you don’t get in. It’s as simple as that.
They get that power from Congress. By acting pursuant to congressional power, of course, they are bound by the same oath to uphold the Constitution.
They hold no regular meetings. They don’t meet in the same place. They don’t announce their meetings or agendas in
advance. And they don’t make records of their meetings public.
“Clearly there’s a problem with secrecy in the gallery,” said Patrick Clawson, former member of the Executive Committee for the Senate Periodicals Gallery.
“It’s a closed and corrupt system,” he added, “and it’s gotten extremely political in recent years.”
WorldNetDaily.com, Inc. has been doing battle against this system for the past 19 months. On Feb. 8, 2001, the popular newssite, with more than 2.5 million readers, applied for permanent daily credentials to cover Congress like the other gallery members, including Beijing’s Xinhua News Agency.
A year later, on Jan. 29, the Standing Committee denied its application. The case is on appeal before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which has governing authority over the quasi-governmental body of journalists.
Litigation counsel Richard Ackerman, representing WND on behalf of the non-profit United States Justice Foundation, says gallery officials, acting out of political and professional prejudices, have demonstrated a “pattern of deceit” in dealing with WND from the start.
He says they have withheld public information, contradicted themselves, misrepresented facts, misled some of WND’s more than 2.5 million readers and even a U.S. senator, told half-truths and outright falsehoods, broken due-process and procedural rules, and pried into the news-gathering practices of an independent, privately owned for-profit news organization.
By discriminating against WND based on its reporting, Ackerman argues, they have in effect censored WND’s voice in the people’s Congress and violated its First Amendment rights as a member of the free press.
Clawson put it less gently: “They have urinated on the Constitution.”
A “pattern of deceit,” dissembling and circumlocution has indeed emerged. For example:
- Standing Committee member Jack Torry claimed WND doesn’t “publish its own content.”
Fact: The newssite has published more than 14,000 original news stories and columns since its founding, many of which have been cited by Torry’s own publication, the Columbus Dispatch, and those of all the other members of the committee.
- The committee told Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that it turned down WND’s application because it didn’t meet the “50 percent” threshold for original content.
Fact: There is no 50 percent rule, written or otherwise. And if there were, many of the gallery members – including the Columbus Dispatch – wouldn’t qualify.
- Torry also maintained that WND “turned down” temporary credentials.
Fact: No temporary credentials were offered.
- Standing Committee Chairman William L. Roberts III of Bloomberg News said the panel gave WND the “same three-month temporary” credentials it gave the military newspaper Stars & Stripes.
Again, it never happened.
- Officials claimed WND is associated with Judicial Watch Inc.
Fact: Larry Klayman has written a couple of columns.
- They charged WND took money from Richard Mellon Scaife, alleged don of the so-called “vast right-wing conspiracy” against the Clintons.
Fact: Unlike another website, WND has not taken a dime from Scaife.
- Gallery deputy director Stephen J. “Joe” Keenan, had promised WND the committee would decide on WND’s application with “three others” early last
Fact: Never happened.
- Then in August 2001, Keenan said the panel would decide on WND after Labor Day.
Fact: It didn’t meet on WND until this year – 12 months after WND applied.
- At an April 15 appeal hearing, Keenan said the panel first formally took up WND’s application on May 5, 2001.
Fact: It was April 23, 2001 – and officials took the liberty of correcting Keenan’s
erroneous date in the hearing transcript. But even that date is sketchy: Excerpts of minutes show the committee at that meeting merely decided to sit on the application.
- A female gallery staffer said the Standing Committee meets once a month in a room in the Senate Press Gallery.
- Standing Committee lawyer N. Frank Wiggins of Venable LLP insisted WND could not see notes of meetings or any other documents related to the consideration of WND’s application. He said they weren’t public.
- Roberts now says he’s made the WND minutes available.
Fact: He merely posted on the gallery website excerpts of excerpts. Roberts ordered a staffer to retype minutes in which WND was mentioned. They are not copies of the formal minutes, nor are they the complete minutes of those meetings.
- Keenan, whose news media experience involves delivering the Tucson Citizen, originally told WND its application was being held up because it was purely an Internet newspaper with no
offline companion (much like Bloomberg News, ironically enough). His boss said the same thing.
Fact: In the end, the committee objected to “cross-ownership” between WND and the nonprofit Western Journalism Center, from which it was spun off in 1999. It also cited a lack of “significant” original content.
Fact: A two-page list of research items the committee used to investigate WND
included 27 articles and documents, most of which had “conservative” or “Clinton” in the title. WJC topped President Clinton’s enemies list.
- The same media gatekeepers suggested WND come back when it had a bigger staff to put out more original content like other members.
- The committee says it based its nebulous litmus of “significant” content on a 1996 Internet policy.
Fact: It said in a June 18 memo that it disregarded the policy as “inadequate.” (And until WND pointed it out, officials left Roberts’ Jan. 29 denial letter citing “significant” content off the gallery website. Curiously, it had posted all other WND case documents but that one.)
- The committee claims on May 21, 2001, it offered WND “one-day temporary credentials on an as-needed basis for up to six months pending receipt of further
information concerning the relationship between WorldNetDaily and the Western Journalism Center.”
Fact: Never happened.
- It also claimed WND was a subsidiary of WJC.
Fact: WJC is a minority shareholder in WND. Headquartered in different states, the two entities have completely separate finances, operations and management.
- Disabused of that notion, the committee then argued that WND is part-owned by a nonprofit in violation of membership rules.
Fact: No such nonprofit rule exists. More, the panel has approved several
nonprofits, not the least of which is the Associated Press, the gallery’s largest member.
- Undeterred, the gatekeepers suggested that 501(c)3s like WJC are somehow lobbying organizations.
Fact: Unlike for-profits, they are specifically restricted from lobbying.
- The panel claimed it had denied – in separate adjudications, one held in secret with no vote – WND’s Washington bureau chief both permanent and day-pass credentials.
Fact: Senate rules require panel members to first accredit new organizations, then individuals. They got it backwards, abrogating the action, Ackerman says.
Fact: They also violated due-process laws, offering no notice of the separate
adjudication or opportunity for a hearing.
“They clearly have not acted in good faith, and this entire chain of events casts doubt on their honesty not just as journalists, but as individuals,” said WND founder and Editor Joseph Farah. “Yet these are the men and women not only covering Congress, but deciding who else can cover Congress.”
“The American people deserve better,” he added.