Attorney General Edwin Meese III announced yesterday that he will move the journalists covering his administration from a vantage point just down the hall from his office to a new press room four floors away.
Meese's spokesman, Terry Eastland, described the shift from the fifth floor to the first floor as a "management move" to consolidate and expand the attorney general's public affairs office on the lower floor.
"The first floor is really the natural home for this," Eastland said. "Inasmuch as the press deals with the office of public affairs, it makes sense to locate the press room as close as possible."
But the shift from the fifth floor, where the press has been a neighbor to the attorney general since the 1930s, was widely viewed by journalists covering the Justice Department as an effort to control their access to Meese and the visitors to his office.
"I for one would be happy to be closer to the attorney general and farther away from the public affairs office," said Joseph Volz, who has covered the Justice Department for almost 15 years, most recently for The New York Daily News. "They can move the public affairs office to Rockville, as far as I'm concerned. In fact, maybe that's next."
Eastland said the move is not in any way an effort to limit reporters' access to Meese. He said that in the past six weeks, Meese has had three news conferences. At the last one, he said, reporters ran out of questions.
But for many journalists, the move is a sign that Meese wants to control his encounters with the news media.
"I think it's a disaster," said Ronald J. Ostrow, who has been covering the Justice Department for The Los Angeles Times since 1966. "It has both a symbolic and actual impact. I can tick off a number of stories I have gotten over the last 19 years by parking my carcass in that doorjamb and just staring down the hall," he said.
Ostrow and others noted that because Meese has refused to make his daily log public, as other attorney generals have done, it is difficult to know who visits him unless reporters see them.