SCOTUSblog continues to run up against the white blood-cell response of traditional media

With bloggers like Glenn Greenwald breaking world-altering news like the Snowden story and building standalone media properties like Vox or 538, you might think that the question of whether blogs are media entities would be settled by now — even the Court of Appeal has held that bloggers are entitled to the same kinds of freedoms as traditional media. So why can’t the SCOTUSblog get a press pass from the U.S. Senate? Chalk it up to what I like to call the “white blood-cell response” of mainstream media — in other words, the immune reaction of an industry that perceives blogs (rightly or wrongly) as a threat to its livelihood.

Sadly, this saga has been going on for years now: A pioneering media outlet devoted solely to covering the Supreme Court, SCOTUSblog — which was founded by and is owned by lawyer Thomas Goldstein — has won numerous legal and media awards for its reporting, and is seen by many as the go-to source for information and analysis whenever there is an important Supreme Court decision. But it has been unable to get media authorization from the court itself, in part because the court has deferred to the Senate to determine who is official press, and until recently the Senate press gallery had declined to recognize the site.

In a recent blog post, Goldstein gets to the heart of the issue: the refusal to recognize SCOTUSblog as a media outlet is a rejection of the idea that a subject-matter expert can or should be able to function as a member of the press, despite the fact that we increasingly see examples of this all around us, and despite the fact that SCOTUSblog’s campaign has been supported by everyone from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to the New Yorker.

The development of inexpensive publishing platforms makes it much easier now for people who are experts in a subject, but are not part of traditional news organizations, to engage in journalism. SCOTUSblog is a hybrid. We are subject matter experts, but we are set up as a news organization with strict editorial standards and separation from my work as a lawyer. We are trying to cover newsworthy events and issues that are directly related to the Supreme Court, including in the Senate. And we are doing it as journalists do.

SCOTUSblog has been able to get press accreditation in the past by doing an end-run around the rules, such as by having one of its writers who also freelances for a radio station (veteran legal reporter Lyle Denniston) apply for press credentials through that job instead of their SCOTUSblog one. But this somewhat farcical state of affairs has now escalated to the point where the Senate press gallery committee — which only grudgingly provided SCOTUSblog with a press pass last year, after years of denials — has revoked the site’s standing and said that neither it nor Denniston will be eligible for press credentials in the future.

The press gallery committee — which is made up of journalists from outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the Capitol-focused site Roll Call — hasn’t released any reasons for its decision, but comments made to the New York Times suggest that the problem is Goldstein’s status as a lawyer, which some of the committee members see as a potential conflict. Chairwoman Siobhan Hughes said that the gallery didn’t exclude sites based on ownership or ideas because “that would be censorship,” but was concerned about the “structure” of applicants, and whether they were “independent of any group that lobbies the government or that is not principally a news organization.”

As Goldstein noted in his post, the gallery seems to be more than comfortable issuing official press credentials to the Xinhua News Agency of China — a group whose independence from those interested in lobbying the government might justifiably be questioned — and to various industry groups who are also arguably not independent. But it won’t issue them to a site that has been recognized for the quality of its reporting on the Supreme Court, because it happens to be owned by a lawyer.

The issue of who deserves to be considered a journalist is an increasingly problematic one, precisely because the development of blogs and social media allow anyone to use the kinds of publishing tools that were once exclusively available to journalists and large media organizations. But denying a press pass to a site like SCOTUSblog, which exists solely to report on the court and has been widely recognized for doing so, seems a lot more like spite than it does the considered opinion of an impartial group of journalists.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / trekandshoot