In addition to my anchoring and reporting duties at the FNC, I have a part-time gig. I am currently serving as the chairman of the Congressional Radio TV Correspondents Association — my second tour of duty. The association consists of the 2600 broadcasters credentialed to cover Congress. I lead (and I use that term loosely) a committee of six other broadcasters who have been elected by our members to serve as a liaison between the elected folk and the broadcasters.
It is a strange organization in many ways. Congress (your tax dollars, actually) provide us with space to operate — and small staffs that struggle each and every day to facilitate our coverage needs without hacking off the elected folks who sign their paychecks. These people have a thankless job. Everyday they work to pave the way for our cameras and microphones in an institution sometimes disinclined to have us there. They answer to Congress — they answer to us. In short, they are constantly walking a tightrope.
There has always been friction between elected officials in Congress and the free press — it's built right into the Constitution. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights says, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press..." Article One of the Constitution says, "Each House [of Congress] may determine the rules of its proceedings." Translation: They can't keep journalists out — but Congress gets to set the rules regarding access.
Reporters often shrug their shoulders and say, "It's their candy store." There is sometimes a feeling that we just have to accept whatever elected officials grant us in the way of access. In truth, the rules that determine where we can go with cameras and microphones are the end result of negotiations over the years between the elected officials and the Radio TV Correspondents Association. The rules are the glue that have allowed our quasi-official/quasi-journalistic arrangement to function for 50-plus years.
Many of the current rules for cameras and microphones are archaic. They have their roots in the original rules written during a time when it took a flatbed truck to move a TV camera. Since becoming chairman of the RTCA last December, I have been asking the elected officials to work with us to update the rules to reflect the fact that cameras are now smaller and more portable. Usable video can even be captured on your common, everyday cell phone.
Our first request to use small handheld cameras to more effectively cover Congress for the American people, was pretty much DOA. The elected officials freaked — and our brothers and sisters in print journalism took the position that they were only in favor of the First Amendment when it was applied to their particular form of journalism.
So the RTCA withdrew that proposal and proposed a more modest rule change. We asked that we be allowed to set up a camera when we felt there was news to cover in the Senate's Ohio Clock corridor. In short, we wanted a level playing field for TV journalists covering the Senate.
A little background: The Ohio Clock corridor is a hallway where a lot of the news you care about happens. We are currently allowed to have a camera there only when Senate leaders approve. If they don't like the news we are pursuing — they turn us down. Print and radio reporters — and still photographers — have no such restrictions in the Ohio Clock corridor. TV reporters who count on cameras to provide pictures of what their elected officials are doing, operate at a distinct disadvantage. On the House side of Capitol Hill (where leaders have always been a bit more enlightened about access issues) we have such a camera right outside the House chambers. The House camera arrangement has worked beautifully.
Change is difficult to achieve in an institution steeped in tradition. Senate officials sent us a letter turning down this modest and reasonable request for slightly better access. Because I believe the first no doesn't always mean no, I began a grassroots campaign to change their minds on the issue. Admittedly it's weird to have journalists lobbying Congress, but our executive committee unanimously felt it was appropriate in this case. Letters were written, buttons were stamped and the e-mail boxes of key Hill officials began to fill up with notes from our 2600 members.
And you know what? It was starting to work. We were just about to sit down for a final round of negotiations with Hill leaders when a most unfortunate incident occurred at a very inopportune moment. CNN Reporter Joe Johns pushed the envelope in his pursuit of a story on pork barrel spending. His producer used a small digital camera to supplement authorized videotaping in the Ohio Clock corridor. The target of his story, Senator Ted Stevens, wrote a letter of complaint. The RTCA Executive Committee investigated and issued letters that satisfied neither Mr. Johns, nor Sen. Stevens.
Now the top Senate cop — Senate Sergeant at Arms Bill Pickle — is conducting an investigation of the incident at the request of Senate Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott. Senator Lott has absolute authority in this matter and may well decide to suspend John's Hill credential for a time AND rewrite our rules without our involvement. Remember, it's their candy store.
How will all this turn out? I'm not sure I know at this moment. I suspect that some Hill officials are using the Johns-Stevens incident as an opportunity to "teach those pesky broadcasters a lesson." Some of those same officials have circulated wild and unsubstantiated rumors that have turned the print reporters against the broadcasters. Sad.
So dear viewers, I find myself at the center of chaotic happenings on Capitol Hill. I thought it was important to share this with you because there has been some reporting about it — some of it accurate — some of it not. I sincerely hope that when all the dust has settled and there has been a cooling-off period, broadcasters and elected officials can again sit down work out our differences and write a new set of rules that provide a more level playing field for TV broadcasters, continued decorum for the Senators and better coverage of important news events for the American people.
Someone please remind me again why I ran for this job?
“Weekend Live” hosted by Brian Wilson airs 12 – 2 p.m. ET on Sundays.
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Brian Wilson is a congressional correspondent for FOX News and anchor of the Sunday edition of "Weekend Live."