Television reporters covering the Capitol were told midday Tuesday to stop recording interviews in Senate hallways, a dramatic and unexplained break with tradition that was soon reversed amid a wide rebuke from journalists, Democratic lawmakers and free-speech advocates.
The episode heightened concerns about reporters’ access to Washington leaders in an era when hostility toward the political media has increasingly become the norm. For some, the move to protect senators from impromptu on-camera interviews fell into a wider Trump-era pattern of efforts to roll back press freedoms, whether by barring reporters from interviewing officials or denying them access to briefings, trips and events.
“These are actions that are without precedent in the history of the White House and Congress,” said Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the group’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
“Even if some of the violations are of norms rather than rights, the effect is to make the government less transparent at precisely the moment when congressional oversight has been at its weakest,” Wizner said.
Advocates for congressional media blamed the Senate Rules Committee for the short-lived policy. Craig Caplan, chairman of the executive committee of the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association, described the move as an “effort to limit press access.”
“Restricting access in public spaces in the U.S. Capitol and Senate office buildings prevents the American public from hearing directly from their lawmakers,” Caplan said in a statement.
“We are in discussions with the Senate Rules Committee to address their concerns and look forward to developing a workable solution that does not curtail our First Amendment rights,” Caplan stated.
The controversy started Tuesday around noon, when staffers from the Senate Radio and Television Correspondents Gallery, which operates workspace for networks in the Capitol, told reporters from major television networks, with no warning, to stop recording video in the hallways. Gallery staffers blamed the shift on the Senate Rules Committee, which has official jurisdiction over media access in the upper chamber, according to journalists who shared detailed accounts of the developments on Twitter.
The directive touched off a day of confusion as the Rules Committee denied issuing new restrictions and gallery staffers refused to explain their part in the drama.
“The Rules Committee has made no changes to the existing rules governing press coverage on the Senate side of the Capitol complex,” the Rules Committee chairman, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), said in a statement. “The Committee has been working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules in an effort to help provide a safe environment for Members, the press corps, staff and constituents as they travel from Senate offices to the Capitol.”
The apparent change in practice came as the number of reporters on Capitol Hill has increased dramatically, reflecting the high stakes Republicans face as they respond to controversies involving Trump and work to advance their legislative agenda.
The hallways of the Capitol have become so chaotic that leaders of the Senate press galleries — there is another one for print media — issued a warning last month that the complex has “reached its capacity” for reporters. “Collectively, the press following Senators have become large and aggressive,” officials with the two galleries wrote. “We are concerned someone may get hurt.”
On Tuesday, a bevy of Democratic senators, as well as a few Republicans, criticized the policy shift as unnecessary and harmful to press freedom.
Several Democrats tied the move directly to the health-care legislation now being debated in the Senate. “Press access should never be restricted unfairly, particularly not when one party is trying to sneak a major bill through Congress,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, was caught off guard by the restrictions, telling reporters she had not been consulted on any changes to press access rules. She said Shelby chalked up the move to a “staff inquiry” during a phone call Tuesday and assured her he would not move forward with a major shift without first discussing it with her.
“He seemed to imply they weren’t going to change the policy, but I’m not going to put words in his mouth,” Klobuchar told reporters at the Capitol.
Were Shelby to go forward with new press restrictions, Klobuchar said she would oppose it, calling it an “assault on the First Amendment.”
“You don’t shut down the press if you don’t want to do interviews,” she said. “You just say, ‘I don’t want to do interviews today.’ ”
Paige Winfield Cunningham contributed to this report.