The National Press Club on Friday sharply criticized the Capitol Police for reportedly manhandling several reporters this week in the Senate basement and blocking the press from interviewing some senators during a vote.
The incident contravened the chamber’s long-standing bipartisan practice of supporting journalists’ access to lawmakers.
During a routine Thursday afternoon floor vote, a large number of reporters were gathered in the Senate basement to interview lawmakers when, without warning, Capitol Police officers interjected themselves between senators and reporters and in some instances manhandled and shoved reporters away, according to a Roll Call news report. This reportedly happened to the surprise of several senators, who were willingly engaging in interviews.
The altercation between reporters and police did not last long, and the police eventually allowed reporters to resume their customary subway interview practices. But it was nonetheless unacceptable, Club leaders said.
“Capitol Police dramatically over-reacted on Thursday and did more harm than good when they prevented accredited reporters from doing their job and further obstructed senators from communicating with the press. There was no call for the police to shove or place their hands on the reporters,” said National Press Club President Alison Kodjak.
The Senate basement is an area where senators embark and disembark from an internal subway system on their way to-and-from floor votes. It is widely considered one of the best spots on Capitol Hill for reporters to interview lawmakers. The general public is not permitted in the Senate subway area but duly accredited reporters have long been granted access. Rules around journalists’ physical access are determined by the Senate Rules Committee and are administered by the Sergeant-at-Arms office, which traditionally has had a constructive working relationship with the self-governing press associations that determine which news outlets are accredited.
“We urge the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Rules Committee, Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, to reaffirm that accredited reporters have authorization to interact with and ask questions of senators in the Senate subway area,” Kodjak said. “We call upon the Sergeant-at-Arms to continue the office’s long-standing practice of working with the standing committees in devising access protocols for those times when heightened-security is warranted.”
“At a time when we have seen the press’ physical access around Washington reduced – including through fewer White House, State Department and Pentagon news briefings – Capitol Hill remains one of the few bright spots for reporters,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the club’s nonprofit. “For decades, U.S. lawmakers have demonstrated their respect for the First Amendment’s freedom of the press by allowing reporters special access to Capitol Hill grounds. Journalists know this and are respectful of that privilege. Constructive cooperation between the Sergeant-at-Arms and the standing committees has served the press, lawmakers, and, most importantly, the American public well for many years.”
The world’s leading professional organization for journalists, the National Press Club represents more than 3,100 reporters, editors and professional communicators worldwide. The Club’s nonprofit Journalism Institute works to advance press freedom and grow journalism in the public interest. The Institute will convene a summit next month on government-media relations and how both institutions can regain the public’s trust.