Keep press free: Even alt-right news organization has rights

WASHINGTON

In a chaotic media environment that includes President Donald Trump’s long-running feud with mainline, old school journalism comes another thorny issue, this one concerning who should get access to the privileges of a free press.

It’s not a new question by any means. The fine line between legitimate news coverage and that which is questionably financed or politically motivated is often blurred and difficult to define.

But it’s a question worth asking again as the standing committee of correspondents that governs the congressional daily press gallery has decided, at least for now, to not renew Breitbart News’ credentials to cover the national legislature. The rejection, the committee said, has nothing to do with Breitbart’s espousal and support for nationalism and other far, far-right causes.

Rather, the denial is based on alleged conflicts of interest and possible inappropriate lobbying efforts, the committee said.

For those out-of-touch individuals who have covered their eyes and stuffed carrots in their ears, Breitbart is a publication of the so-called alt-right. It was led by Stephen Bannon until he resigned last fall and took a job as a chief adviser in the Trump White House.

If the committee’s reasoning for the denial goes at all beyond what’s been publicly stated, the move’s legitimacy becomes highly suspect given the broad rights bestowed upon a free press.

For their part, mainline news organizations have been lobbying Congress on mail rates, joint operating agreements and other matters since the beginning of modern journalism. Their editors and publishers have not only been advocates of nearly every stripe of political philosophy but also confidantes and advisers to a wide range of public officials, including U.S. presidents.

Long ago, when the earth was young and I was a member of the same standing committee of correspondents, we were faced with a similar dilemma. It was during the Vietnam and civil rights era, and the applicant for credentials was Thomas Forcade, a publisher of what we then called the “alternative press,” which included one-cause newspapers and magazines dealing with controversial subjects such as the legalization of marijuana. Many of our gallery members opposed his certification.

It was my contention that we were on shaky ground given our responsibility to protect a free press. I applied what I called the “necktie defense.” If the applicant obeyed the Senate’s rules for dress and deportment, and promised not to advocate burning down the Capitol or assaulting members, we had little authority to deny him what we all enjoyed.

Forcade agreed reluctantly to put on the necktie, I voted for him, and he was credentialed by one vote. There was a small uproar but it faded quickly. Forcade was rarely seen in the gallery after that, leading me to believe he was more interested in the issue than the actual result.

Access is a main ingredient in press freedom and denying it or throwing major roadblocks in its path should not be taken lightly. Restrictions because of security needs have necessarily cut down on the free-wheeling movement on Capitol Hill that my colleagues and I enjoyed in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

The ability to readily contact sources and simply cover breaking news has been curtailed, making the ever-changing landscape of our work difficult.

We should take the utmost care not to further these problems frivolously or because we don’t agree with those seeking what the Constitution guarantees us — the right to report what we see, hear or think and pass it on to our fellow Americans.

I do not agree with anything Breitbart stands for. But I do believe in its constitutional right to do business.

Dan Thomasson, a Hoosier native and Franklin College trustee, is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.