Around the country, credentialing organizations struggle every year to make decisions as journalists and news outlets apply for law-enforcement passes to cross police lines, day passes to attend a specific event, and hard passes to access a government agency on a regular basis. The groups issuing these credentials debate whether bloggers are journalists and wonder how to maintain the press pass’s integrity at a time when news production is widely dispersed.
It’s a difficult business, and now the organizations doing it are indebted to the US Senate Daily Press Gallery—which has made a major contribution to the body of knowledge on how not to make credentialing decisions.
On April 7, the gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents decided to reject the application for a press credential for Amy Howe, editor of the website SCOTUSblog, which over the last few years has emerged as an essential news source about the Supreme Court. At the same time, the committee decided not to renew the credential previously granted to SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston when it expires in May. The site plans to appeal and ask the gallery to reconsider those decisions at its May meeting, publisher Tom Goldstein told CJR. If that effort fails, he said, he plans to appeal to the Senate Rules Committee and possibly to initiate litigation.
“Our appeal focuses on the decision not to renew Lyle’s credential, because it brings home our values,” Goldstein said. “The Gallery will have to tell Lyle Denniston he’s not a journalist for a legitimate news organization.”
While I believe the committee’s decision was incorrect, the merits of SCOTUSblog’s application are complicated. On the one hand, the site has been widely recognized for its coverage of the Supreme Court: It has received, among other citations, the 2012 Peabody Award for excellence in electronic media and the 2012 Sigma Delta Chi Deadline Reporting Award for online coverage of the Affordable Care Act decision. Linda Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court for 30 years for the New York Times, told me, “SCOTUSblog is essential reading for anyone serious about the Court.” Her successor at the Times, Adam Liptak, called the site “an invaluable resource and an important competitor.” Pete Williams, who covers the Court for NBC News, said, “The blog’s coverage is widely respected by other journalists, academics, and people in the legal profession.” Tony Mauro, who covers the Court for the National Law Journal, said, “SCOTUSblog’s work is remarkable and extensive, and there’s basically nothing I could fault.” Nina Totenberg, who covers the Court for NPR and years ago employed Goldstein as her intern, told me, “It’s a high-quality news organization.”
On the other hand, SCOTUSblog is a puzzle. Goldstein practices before the Supreme Court, and as recently as three years ago he funded the site out of pocket: $250,000 per year from the proceeds of his law practice. Which is sort of ironic, because he started the site as a marketing ploy to generate business for his practice. Goldstein’s firm, during his time at Akin Gump, from 2006-2011, was engaged in lobbying the Senate, too, and he has said he is not a journalist and that he has an “ethical obligation as an officer of the court that supersedes any other ethical obligation.”
However, in recent years, Goldstein developed editorial firewalls to separate the site from his law practice and to address other actual or apparent conflicts. One rule, for example, forbids contributors from reporting on cases in which they or their firms are involved. Meanwhile, the site’s lead reporter, Denniston, who has covered the Court for 55 years and joined SCOTUSblog in 2004, is free to report on what he wants, except cases in which Goldstein’s firm is involved—all to ensure editorial independence. Also, since 2011, the site has been financially independent from Goldstein’s law practice. SCOTUSblog does not pay any employee of Goldstein’s firm, and the site’s exclusive sponsorship agreement with Bloomberg Law covers the site’s salaries and expenses, currently $500,000 per year.
All of which is to say: Whether the site qualifies for a Senate press credential is not self-evident. Based on what I know about SCOTUSblog, how it’s structured and operates today, I do believe it should be credentialed. To use the language of the gallery rules—which we’ll examine more closely below—Denniston and Howe have established that they’re “full-time, paid correspondent[s]” “employed by a news organization” “whose principal business is the daily dissemination of original news and opinion of interest to a broad segment of the public.” SCOTUSblog’s work “requires on-site access” to Congress, it is “editorially independent” of entities lobbying the federal government, and Denniston and Howe don’t lobby or advocate for any entity or prosecute claims before federal agencies.