Legal News: SCOTUSBlog denied press credentials over “conflict of interests”

Senate press gallery ignores the evolution of journalism, denies SCOTUSblog press credentials

By Mathew Ingram, gigaom.com, 6/24/2014.  

The irony couldn’t be any more stark: On Monday, at almost the exact same moment as tens of thousands of people — including dozens of professional journalists — were checking the SCOTUSblog site to see whether new decisions by the country’s top court had been posted, the site itself was being denied a press pass by the standing committee of journalists who approve such credentials for the U.S. Senate. A pass is a crucial step towards getting credentials from the court itself, something SCOTUSblog has repeatedly been prevented from having.

To anyone who follows the Supreme Court, the blog that lawyer Tom Goldstein started over a decade ago has become a must-read, not just for its wall-to-wall coverage of the court’s decisions, but in-depth analysis of those decisions and their impact. The site has won a Peabody Award — the first blog to win such an honor — as well as an award from the Society for Professional Journalists and the silver gavel award from the American Bar Association (the only blog to win one).

To the members of the Senate’s press gallery committee, however — who work for mainstream publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Roll Call — SCOTUSblog is a tangled knot of conflicted interests, because its founder and one of its writers are practicing lawyers. But doesn’t this mean that the blog’s content is likely to be even more valuable and credible to readers than the reporting of a publication with less expertise? Apparently not.

In a bizarre example of circular reasoning, the committee said in its decision that it couldn’t allow itself to consider the actual quality of the blog’s journalism — in other words, the thing that has won all the awards — because that could lead to censorship. So all the committee did was consider whether it is run by anyone who is involved in “lobbying the government,” and if so whether the publication has done enough to protect its content from any potential conflict of interest. It decided that SCOTUSblog fails both of these tests.

Although Goldstein has instituted a number of procedures to prevent his legal work from influencing the content on the blog — including a policy of assigning other writers to decisions that might affect him or his clients — the Senate committee decided that this firewall was insufficient to prevent conflicts of interest.  The fact that Goldstein also derives some publicity for himself and his firm from the blog also seemed to trouble the committee, since this presumably isn’t the kind of behavior that real journalistic organizations engage in.

As lawyer and blogger Eugene Volokh — a First Amendment expert and former Supreme Court clerk — points out in his response to the committee’s decision, the denial of credentials to what he calls “the most important and valuable source of news and analysis about the Supreme Court” isn’t just a mistake, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet has changed journalism.

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