The American journalist population is dwindling, but you’d never know it by wandering around the Capitol.
There are some 33,000 daily newspaper journalists left in the country (down from 57,000 in 1996), and it seems that most of them have migrated to this suddenly fertile new habitat. They stake out basement conference rooms, graze outside of Senate lunches, and pounce on politicians as they exit elevators.
Once thought to be going the way of the dodo bird or zeppelin repairman, journalists of the Trump era are crowding legislative hallways at such a startling density that the endangered species is starting to seem like … an invasive one.
“We want to make you aware the Capitol has reached its capacity for reporters,” the officials who oversee the Senate press gallery wrote in a letter to news organizations last month, as Republican infighting and the drama of the Trump presidency were suddenly ramping up the urgent need for scribes to “just get a quote” from some lawmaker, any lawmaker, on whatever crisis of whichever day.
The warning was dire: “Collectively, the press following Senators have become large and aggressive. We are concerned someone may get hurt.”
It’s a legitimate fear, one reporter noted while observing 80-year-old Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attempting to navigate a heaving throng in the Senate basement.
“We are one tripped senator away from losing our access,” the reporter said.
Hill reporters remain wary of measures to restrict their movement, an instinct that is especially strong amid mounting examples of physical aggression toward journalists.
In the past month, a reporter was arrested at the West Virginia state capitol while trying to ask questions of visiting Health Secretary Tom Price. A reporter for Roll Call said he was pinned against the wall in a public hallway of the Federal Communications Commission while posing questions to Commissioner Michael P. O’Rielly. And Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) was charged with assaulting a reporter on the night before his election.
No physical clashes have been reported at the U.S. Capitol. But even by historical standards, the increase of reporters on the Hill has been dramatic: Veteran staffers say more reporters now assemble to cover the Capitol every day than during either Watergate or the Clinton impeachment.
“We would love a drama-free week,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said recently as a gaggle of reporters — dozens deep — descended upon him after he disembarked from a Senate subway. “We really would.”
This will not be that week. Not with former FBI director James B. Comey coming to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. There’s so much interest in this hearing that local bars have decided to open early for viewing parties (bars, of course, being another natural habitat for journalists).
Comey’s testimony will almost certainly reinvigorate the controversy that began with his firing — and produce ever more hallway traffic jams. While entire state houses across the country go virtually ignored by the media, dozens of reporters will congregate to check Twitter, gossip, and wait to ask whomever walks by essentially the same question: What the heck is going on?
“I was kind of in the middle of a conversation,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said in response to a version of this question.
“I’m not doing this,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in response to another journalist, who had scampered in front of her on an ascending escalator and was attempting to perch backward to ask her a question.
While events like the Comey hearing naturally limit the number of reporters present — only so many people can actually fit into the room — the Capitol itself does not. Anyone with an active press credential can roam the grounds and the building. To a visiting White House reporter, the recent typical day on Capitol Hill might seem like anarchy.
Visitors to the Capitol, including lawmakers’ family members, have complained about the crush of people. On the House side, the sergeant at arms office has erected stanchions in certain hallways to keep paths clear for members walking to votes.
In a statement, House Sergeant at Arms Paul D. Irving said balancing press access with safety and accessibility is a “daily matter.”
“We work with the press gallery to maintain this balance,” Irving stated. “However, the Capitol is a functioning office building as well as a tourist destination. The enforcement of the rules by my office is done for safety and security; our number one job.”
On Monday evening, as a small crowd of reporters waited for senators to arrive and vote on a nonbinding pro-Israel resolution, a press gallery staffer walked up to the pillar along the subway tracks and taped up a map outlining the newly designated “red zone” where reporters could not gather.
“Make sure to maintain an egress to allow movement of other senators and staff at all times,” it read.
That it’s gotten to this point is kind of crazy considering the tumbleweeds that were blowing through here just three years ago. Congress had become so boring and impotent with gridlock that even protesters had stopped showing up. But now the Capitol’s normal rhythms have given way to frenzied eruptions — the House health-care debate, the Comey firing, the Russia investigations — with fewer and shorter periods of lull between them.
It’s like every day is State of the Union night.
Stepping off the Senate subway last week, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was immediately swarmed. At 5-foot-7, he seemed to shrink inside the media mob, seemingly at risk of suffocating in a coffee-breath sauna.
“The last time it was this crazy was … oh wait, it was last week for Comey,” said a reporter standing on the crowd’s outer perimeter.
He couldn’t make out what Corker had to say, but had faithfully stuck his voice recorder into the heart of the scrum.
David Weigel contributed to this report.