Galley Gatekeepers

The Politics of Press Credentials


In September, the right-wing webzine WorldNetDaily was granted credentials to cover the U.S. Congress. It had to fight for that access, though, in a battle that revealed some uncomfortable facts about the way the Washington media guild conducts its business.

In January, WorldNetDaily had been told that it wouldn't be issued those credentials. A few months later, the Standing Committee of Correspondents—the panel of journalists charged by Congress with guarding the press galley gates—rebuffed the publication's appeal. The webzine ended up going to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee for help, arguing that the panel's decision had violated the site's constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and freedom of the press.

Why had WorldNetDaily been barred? In a February letter to the site, William Roberts of the correspondents committee explained that "publications operated, funded or affiliated with tax-free special interest or issue advocacy groups do not qualify for accreditation." Since WorldNetDaily is partially owned by the Western Journalism Center, a tax-exempt organization created to "return the press to its traditional role as watchdog on government," it was disqualified. Roberts added that, to be accredited, Internet publications "must provide daily news with significant original reporting content." For reasons left unstated, the committee did "not believe WorldNetDaily meets this threshold."

When WorldNetDaily asked to see any documents related to the committee's decision, it received instead a two-page list of such documents. On that list, the word conservative was repeatedly circled and highlighted, while the phrase too aggressive was written in the margins. From such evidence, the publication argued that it was being discriminated against for its political content. It also noted that credentials have been issued to other media outlets owned by nonprofits, such as the Medill News Service and the Associated Press.

On September 15, faced with legal threats and negative publicity, the panel reversed itself, voting 3-2 to award WorldNetDaily its credentials. In defeat, the gatekeepers seemed unrepentant. One of the nay votes, Jim Kuhnhenn of Knight-Ridder, complained loudly about the site's wllingness to fight for its rights and, worse yet, to write about its struggle. "I cannot in good conscience support [Washington bureau chief] Paul Sperry's application for a credential," he declared, "because if I do, I would be endorsing his brand of extortion journalism."