Clinton trial raises new media, public access problems
WASHINGTON, D.C.–President Clinton’s impeachment trial has sparked controversy over the right of the news media to cover the historic event.
In mid-January, a Senate panel declined to lift the long-standing ban on still news photographers in the Senate chamber. The committee said that only a Senate photographer, not news photographers, could take pictures of the trial from the Senate chamber. It claimed the rule was necessary to reduce noise and distractions.
In addition, under an 1868 rule requiring all impeachment debate and deliberations to be conducted behind closed doors, the Senate may discuss issues ranging from the calling of witnesses to the actual guilt or innocence of the President in private. Changing this 131- year-old rule would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate.
The Senate may also close any portion of the proceedings by a majority vote. If the Senate decides to allow witnesses, their testimony may be taken in private.
Some senators have said the final deliberations should be conducted privately, similar to jury deliberations in a criminal trial. Other senators have said they do not support a secret ‘star chamber’ proceeding for the President.
Media organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists and C-SPAN have opposed these closed proceedings, and have urged the Senate to conduct open proceedings for every phase of the trial.
Even if the impeachment proceedings remain entirely open for public scrutiny, the media may face limited access to cover them.
Numerous media organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, signed a January 14 letter to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other Senate leaders asking that news photographers with still cameras be permitted on the Senate floor. They said concerns about the disruptions by still cameras are no longer valid because technology permits photographers to take pictures without distracting noise and flashes. Senate rulemakers rejected the proposal the next day.
The ban on still photography was waived at least once in the past, for the swearing in of Nelson D. Rockefeller as vice president in 1974.
News organizations can take pictures of the trial through ‘electronic stills’ of the televised images, transmitted through cameras controlled by Senate staff. Senate leaders permit independent television cameras in only two fixed positions outside the Senate chambers. Reporters can conduct pre-arranged interviews off the proceeding premises or in a tightly controlled ‘pen’ outside the Senate chamber in the Ohio Clock corridor.