By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
West Virginia’s Robert Byrd wants to require those credentialed
in Senate press galleries to disclose outside sources of income sp.
CALLING IT A “truth in reporting requirement,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) wants reporters credentialed in the Senate press galleries to disclose any sources of outside income.
“The point of this amendment,” Byrd stated, “is to show that it is time for the media to be accountable.”
The sense-of-the-Senate amendment, which passed 60-39, means another resolution later will be offered, calling for the Senate Rules Committee to hold hearings on the issue.
Byrd’s action was inspired by recent news stories about the substantial fees ? reportedly as high as $30,000, or more ? some journalists are paid for speeches to various organizations.
This is not, however, the first time the issue has come up.
Last year around this time, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) twice took to the Senate floor to decry the “reluctance to disclose relevant data to the public that is in their interest,” although he stopped short of requiring such revelations.
“It is the public’s business,” Grassley said last July. “The public has a right to know who in the world thinks journalists are worth up to $30,000 for one 20-minute speech.”
In his recent comments on the Senate floor, Byrd pointed out that “there have been reports of journalists receiving thousands of dollars in speaking fees . . . from the very groups that they are covering.
“Despite this apparent conflict, some members ? not all, but some members ? of the press take the position that, as a private citizen, they have no obligation . . . to disclose information regarding their acceptance of outside earned income,” he continued.
“The impetus for my amendment is neither an attempt to hamper the media’s ability to do their job, nor is it an effort to infringe in any way upon their First Amendment rights,” Byrd explained. “Instead, the goal of the amendment is simply to apply a level of credibility to the press that reflects the importance of their profession.”
Byrd cited the press’ “enormous power to persuade,” which he said was more than that of “any single politician, or group of politicians . . .
“It is this very power, unchecked and freewheeling, that journalists can no longer ignore and brush aside,” he said.
“There is as much need for the press to be made accountable to the public as there is for elected officials to be made accountable to the public,” Byrd added.
The senator said that he believed it was time for “the communications industry as a whole to take the bull by the horns and develop its own standards. He would prefer, in fact, that the industry “voluntarily take the steps to make themselves accountable.”
Further, he said, “Journalists should forgo the narrow defense of their individual freedoms and face the broader obligation of trust which they bear in our political process.”
Byrd also noted that he was not calling for the elimination of such income, just for its disclosure, nor was he advocating Senate correspondents reveal their salaries.
The proposal, Byrd said, did not “infringe on anybody’s constitutional rights,” nor did it “infringe upon the freedom of the press, as set forth in the American Bill of Rights.
“There is nothing in the Bill of Rights that says you should not have an accounting to the public of some things,” he added.
Knight-Ridder’s Reginald Stuart, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, issued a statement calling Byrd’s proposal “offensive and insulting.”
“Frankly, we are stunned the United States Senate would resort to tactics used by lesser politicians, who attack the media in order to undermine its credibility with the public and distract the public’s attention from the business of government,” he stated.
“There are a few high-profile reporters whose outside employment on the speakers’ circuit has become a disturbing matter. But no conduct by any journalist warrants such an offensive and insulting proposal,” he continued.
The proposal, Stuart commented, “gives aid and comfort to those who would just as soon have no press covering government. We hope that is not the message true believers in the First Amendment, like Sen. Byrd and his colleagues, intend to send.”
Stephen Bates, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program agreed that compelling disclosure is “a terrible idea,” and is “probably unconstitutional.”
“But you can understand where it’s coming from,” he added.
“It’s true that the press wields considerable power, more power than some junior members of Congress,” Bates said, noting that the “press all too rarely criticizes the press, while these guys [in Congress] get criticized all the time.”
Disclosing only the sources of outside income ? instead of the actual amounts ? is a bad idea, according to Bates, who said, “I don’t know if that’s going to make a big difference.”
In addition, he pointed out that as media owners branch out into other ventures, potential conflicts become more complicated.
“The Hutchins Commission was panicky about diminution and concentration, which is 10-times worse now,” commented Bates, who recently published a paper revisiting the findings of the Commission, which nearly 50 years ago set out to reform the press.
“I guess it would be nice if journalists would think more about this issue and whether to accept it at all, and if they do, whether to disclose it,” he added.
Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in the government studies program at the Brookings Institution, pointed out that the congressional press gallery “is an awkward mixture of government turning over funds and power to reporters. They pick the staff up there, they get the facilities, phones and other goodies, and yet they operate entirely as free agents.
“Since they take all of these perks ? including parking space, by the way ? from the government, they’re under an obligation,” Hess said.
“The issue of whether they have any conflict of interest strikes me as a legitimate one. I don’t know that the Congress can demand this, or should demand this, but reporters should be cognizant of this themselves.
“If you don’t want to take the government’s favors, then you can operate any way you want. If you take the government favors, you should be cognizant of the role you are playing, and negotiate in some way over the terms that are appropriate,” he commented.
Hess said he worries that the press has gotten “pretty obtuse” about these potential conflicts of interest, but called Byrd’s action “pretty heavy handed” and noted, “That’s not the way to do it.”
Instead, he suggested that the gallery, which is run by reporters, should “have a perfectly simple annual statement of what their interests are in this regard; a form they fill out when they get their membership card each year, whether they receive outside income from a group with an interest before Congress.
“I don’t much care about the dollar amount. There is a certain right of privacy,” Hess added. “They probably should declare that they’ve received income from outside sources.”
John Harwood, a congressional reporter for the Wall Street Journal, ran for the Standing Committee of Correspondents ? daily journalists elected by their peers to oversee credentialing and other issues ? on a platform calling for disclosure of sources of outside income. He lost by six votes.
Harwood said he did not know the Byrd amendment was coming, and he does not like it.
“I think it’s wrong for the Senate to try to do this,” he said. “We don’t have press licensing in this country, and we shouldn’t. I was talking about something completely different.
“I was suggesting that the press itself implement this kind of disclosure, which I thought was a good idea,” Harwood explained. “I thought it would be good for the business.
“I suggested people disclose sources of income, not the amounts, so it would give people an idea of who we were being paid by,” he said, noting that the proposal drew a “mixed reaction.”
“I think there are still good arguments for some disclosure considering how much we write about and talk about and make an issue of financial conflicts,” Harwood added. Nevertheless, his impression of the Byrd proposal is that it may not go anywhere but was “kind of a warning shot.”
The Periodical Press Gallery, which serves magazine reporters, has a decades-old rule that correspondents disclose their sources of outside income, but not the amounts.
Because many associations and lobbying groups publish their own magazines, the Periodical Gallery in the past was particularly vulnerable to people who wanted to join but could not because of their connection to a lobbying organization, said one reporter familiar with the situation. A few years ago, when the executive committee tried to get more vigilant in enforcing the rule, some members rebelled, but the rule has never been lifted.
Over the last year or two, the committee has made greater efforts to enforce the rule, which has been in place for more than 20 years, but compliance is voluntary, explained the reporter.
?(“There is as much nee for the press to be made accountable to thepublic as there is for elected officials to be made accountable to the public.”) [Photo]
?(Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va) [Photo]