Back in April, the Senate Press Gallery notified SCOTUSBlog that their press credentials would not be renewed. There was no adequate explanation given, and so the decision was appealed to the Standing Committee of Journalists, a group of five journalists appointed by the Senate Press Gallery.
During today's Supreme Court session, the Standing Committee sent notice that the appeal was denied. The reason was mind-boggling.
Today, it settled on the fact that practicing lawyers publish and write for the blog. The Committee takes the view that the blog is not editorially independent from my law firm or from other lawyers who write for the blog. As a consequence, the Committee found, the blog violates two independent requirements under the Committee’s Rules: any credentialed publication must be editorially independent from an organization that (i) “lobbies the federal government”; or (ii) “is not principally a general news organization.”
The very best blog about the Supreme Court is denied access to the Supreme Court because the editors practice law? What's wrong with that picture?
SCOTUSblog founder Tom Goldstein is indeed a practicing appellate lawyer and as such has editorial restrictions as to what he can and cannot cover for the blog. But in his column about the denial, he makes a compelling argument for why this decision is so wrong:
It is true that I direct the blog’s coverage. That makes sense because I spend my days and nights thinking about what is going on at the Court. But the Committee deems it irrelevant that there is one major exception to my editorial authority: I cannot direct any of our coverage in any respect regarding any matter in which we play any role.
I think that this is a sad day for what it means to be a journalist, and that the Standing Committee will find itself on the wrong side of history on this question. Is it really the case that even with clear editorial policies in place a school superintendent cannot engage in journalism about education; that a physicist cannot run a recognize publication about physics; and that a blog run by a practicing physician is inherently not “editorially independent”?
Here's the thing. Without the sponsorship of Goldstein's law firm, that blog cannot stay afloat, because bloggers just don't have the revenue opportunities that traditional media has.
The reality, of course is that none of us – and none of the people running blogs in other fields – can afford to quit our other jobs to become full-time journalists. Before we had a sponsor, I spent several million dollars out of pocket to build the blog. Although it is no longer a money-losing proposition, that is only because I don’t take a salary, and neither do any of the other contributors from the firm.
The simple reality is that I can’t afford to stop practicing law, and if I withdraw as publisher of the blog we lose our sponsorship. SCOTUSblog then collapses. So the Committee has interpreted its Rules in a way that nominally leaves the door open to non-traditional media. But in a lot of cases, that is an optical illusion.
Of course it is, because traditional media is protecting their turf. Never mind that many of them rely on SCOTUSBlog to actually report because they're too lazy or cheap to hire anyone with the expertise necessary to do what they do at that blog.
I got up at 6:30 Monday morning and tuned right in to SCOTUSblog to see what opinions would come out today. I'll do it again on Wednesday and Thursday because there is no coverage that even touches the quality of what they do there. They're professional, they're accessible, and they make a connection between the public and the court that no traditional media outlet can even hope to do.
They can appeal this decision to the Senate Rules Committee. It's time for someone to step up and grant that credential. We will all be worse off if SCOTUSblog is not reporting on the Supreme Court next year.
By the way, here are the members of the Standing Committee of Journalists and their traditional media affiliations, in case you were curious.
Siobhan Hughes, Wall Street Journal, Chairwoman
Peter Urban, Stephens Media Group, Secretary
Colby Itkowitz, Washington Post
Kate Hunter, Bloomberg News
Emily Ethridge, CQ Roll Call