Opinion

Give SCOTUSblog back its press credential

It's insane that the best media outlet covering the Supreme Court isn't treated like a media outlet at all

When the big Supreme Court decision on ObamaCare came down two years ago, both CNN and Fox News famously screwed up the ruling, initially reporting that ObamaCare had been overturned altogether. It took CNN several grimly fascinating minutes to correct its mistake. Fox bounced back a little quicker, by cutting to the chase and simply reading SCOTUSblog — just like everyone else was doing.

In recent years SCOTUSblog, helmed by legendary reporter Lyle Denniston, has emerged as the most credible source in the country when it comes to Supreme Court news. It was rewarded with a Peabody Award in 2013, the first ever for a blog.

Which is why it's so preposterous that the Senate Press Gallery revoked SCOTUSblog's press credential in April. It should be reinstated immediately, particularly as the high court winds up its term with its usual slate of big cases.

The official justification is that SCOTUSblog's publisher, Tom Goldstein, occasionally argues cases before the Supreme Court, which could lead to a conflict of interest. (SCOTUSblog deals with that issue quite straightforwardly here, stressing that it is "an impartial, journalistic entity.")

Laura Lytle, director of the Senate Press Gallery, says organizations can only receive credentials if "the editorial side is independent of any group that lobbies the government or that is not principally a news organization." (The Senate list differs from the official Supreme Court list of credentialed journalists, but generally the court follows the Senate's lead.) Set aside for a moment that SCOTUSblog over the years has clearly proven its independence. The rule itself is undermined by the fact that it is not rigidly enforced at all.

Other organizations credentialed through the Senate Press Gallery include government-owned new agencies of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico, as well as the the official publication of the Japanese Communist Party. Several trade publications with direct financial interests in cases before the court have also been given a pass. One would think that the Kremlin-backed Russian media would not count as "principally a news organization."

Luckily, Denniston himself still has a press credential through WBUR in Boston. But other aspects of SCOTUSblog's operation — which also covers judicial nominations and hearings — are suffering. Notably, members of the SCOTUSblog team do not have guaranteed admission to oral arguments and judgments, meaning they have to wait in line with the public, which is particularly problematic for blockbuster cases. But more to the point, it's just plain absurd that the country's most sophisticated Supreme Court watchers are being treated like corporate shills or unwelcome rabble.

The Senate Press Gallery appears to have a bit of a grudge against SCOTUSblog, as this "hearing" regarding the credential makes clear. I smell more than a little professional jealousy and snobbish disrespect for new media forms.

But aside from that, any definition of editorial independence that has no room for Lyle Denniston's main gig is a farce.

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