No Trespassing

By Griffith, Gary | Washington Journalism Review, January-February 1993 | Go to article overview

No Trespassing


Griffith, Gary, Washington Journalism Review


After being arrested while trying to do a television stand-up on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, correspondent Todd Smith can cite by heart the regulation allowing camera Is crews on the premises.

"It's General Order 402.1," says Smith, who works for Bonneville International Corporation, which owns stations in Seattle and Salt Lake City. In case he's stopped again, he carries a copy of the order, which permits crews to set up tripods at only eight specific locations.

For those television correspondents who want to record what goes on inside congressional buildings, the restrictions are even tighter.

The last term, with its scandals at the House Bank and Post Office, was a frustrating time for television reporters who wanted to include pictures with their stories. Traditionally, Congress has permitted television and still photography only of the events, people and places it wants covered. Everything else remains off limits. Thus, during the long-running House Bank story, there was no authorized videotape of the bank in action. The House leadership allowed only one photo opportunity of the facility, and that was on a day it was closed.

Similarly, there were no authorized pictures of the House Post Office at work - or pictures of the House and Senate barber and beauty shops, the Senate tennis courts or House gym during the uproar over congressional perks. The press had to settle for a photo-op of the door of the House physician's office, where members of Congress receive free prescriptions and other care. It didn't make for good TV.

While members of Congress may have a bona fide argument for banning pictures of themselves in gym shorts or curlers, their excuses for keeping cameras away from other areas are less convincing. A tourist with a camcorder has more freedom videotaping in the halls of Congress than accredited television camera crews.

"It's just ludicrous," says Dan Erlenborn, a producer for NBC News. "We have camera crews that have been through the Kremlin, and yet we're not allowed in the hallways that tourists flood in and out of."

But all of this may change. With at least 110 new members of the House, and at least 13 new members of the Senate, broadcasters are hoping that the 103rd Congress will offer a chance for better access inside the Capitol and congressional office buildings.

Television access to Congress has been slow in coming. As one congressional staffer explains, "Lots of people here believe that Congress functions best at the lowest level of visibility." Although in recent years the networks have been devoting less coverage to Washington in general and Congress in particular (see "New York to Washington: Drop Dead," October 1992), the legislative branch has consistently given broadcast journalists good reason to go elsewhere.

The House authorized the presence of news cameras in congressional hearings in 1970; the Senate has never granted the same blanket access. Hearings in both houses generally were closed to the press for all practical purposes until after the Watergate investigation in 1973. Today news organizations have greater access, but it is still at the discretion of committee chairs who decide when and how hearings are covered - including the placement of cameras.

It was not until 1979 that the House allowed television coverage of its floor proceedings. It owns and operates the cameras, however, and rarely provides cutaways or reaction shots. News cameras are not allowed in the chamber except for special ceremonies.

In 1982, when Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) tried to institute television coverage of the Senate, the vote was blocked by the threat of a filibuster. Democrat Russell Long of Louisiana argued that television coverage would be "a grave mistake" because it would encourage members to give more frequent and longer speeches. The Senate finally acceded to television in 1986 but, like the House, it controls its own cameras. …

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