They were only trying to get more room for their new chairs, said the senators. Virginia statesmen would never purposely interfere with freedom of the press or their own exposure to the late night news.
The decision by a Senate rules subcommittee that redecoration of the Senate chamber meant all reporters, photographers and television technicians would be forced from their traditional space on the Senate floor nevertheless touched off a furor. And some second thoughts by lawmakers.
"I think we made a mistake. We look ridiculous," said Adelard Brault, a Fairfax County Democrat and a member of the committee, which last month undertook the weighty task of heaving the working press into the balcony. "We ought to give them back their tables and chairs."
The flap has alarmed more than a little the corps of reporters and photographers who congregate here for a few months each year to record the sound and substance of state legislators at work. It has also produced curious echoes in the Capitol building where decorum is valued over everything save tradition.
"It was bad enought that they wanted to get rid of us, but they did it in such a discourteous way," complained Mel Carico, a 65-year-old Roanoke reporter who was covering the state house in his red baseball cap before many legislators were elected to their first civic association presidency. "The younger people are more upset than I am. I'm old and beat up. I can roll with the punches."
The initial decision to remove the press from their semicircle of floor space facing the 40 members of the Senate was made in early December, a full month before the start of the legislative session. With new chairs being installed, the senators' desks needed to be moved forward and that meant the press tables had to be removed.
Today the full Rules Committee held another hearing on the matter, during which Thomas Jefferson and George Mason were quoted liberally. And while the Senate did not act on any changes, referring the issue instead to a subcommittee for study, there was evidence that the power of the pen and camera lens had been felt by the legislators.
"There's no honeymoon between me and the press," said William E. (Fearless) Fears (D-Accomack) whose battles with the media are well known here. "But I'd rather thave you taking a picture of me scratching my ear from the front rather than scratching something else from the back."
The fight between the press and the legislators is evidence of the change in both the tenor and type of Capitol press coverage in the last decade. There are now approximately 70 fulltime media representatives who patrol the legislature each year, more than double the number that covered the Capitol just six years ago. And at that time few were carrying television cameras into the chambers.
Senate Majority Leader Hunter Andrews (D-Hampton), the self-appointed chief of protocol in the legislature and one of the driving forces behind the move to oust the press, denied that personal feelings had anything to do with the initial decision.
Architects, said Andrews, who eight years ago won a similar battle to oust the wives of Senators from the back of the chamber, the press corps was growing so dense last year it was often hard to walk from his desk to the clerk's chair without having to step over enemy notebooks.
"I never had any trouble getting up there," retorted the bald-headed Brault, who held Andrew's job until he was deposed last year. "The press never got into my hair. But then anybody would have trouble getting in my hair."