By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The Newseum caves in on reporters’ access

Yes, that’s the First Amendment carved onto the vertical slate in front of the Newseum.

For many of us, it began with a tweet Thursday morning from Boston Globe editor Marty Baron:

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Clicking led to a blog post by Globe political reporter Matt Viser, who had covered an event by Mitt Romney in Washington at the Newseum, a museum about journalism and the importance of the First Amendment. Toward the end, as Baron noted, came this rather startling paragraph:

Romney stayed to take questions. But following his 28-minute address — held at the Newseum, which is situated between the US Capitol and the White House — reporters were escorted out of the room and weren’t allowed to listen to the questions.

In the Newseum? The irony couldn’t have been any thicker. (And not just Romney. See update below.) As Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone put it a short time later:

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Also jumping in was New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who guessed — correctly, as it turned out — how the Newseum would respond:

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Media blogger Jim Romenesko wrote that he contacted Newseum spokesman Jonathan Thompson and “suggested … that the Newseum put a clause in its room-rental contracts requiring journalists be respected in the House of Journalism — for example, not be marched out of a room when it’s time for politicians to face questions.” Please click to read Thompson’s response, but the short version is that Rosen’s prediction was on the mark. You’ll also see my suggestion for how Thompson should have responded.

So those are the facts. What are we to make of this?

First, I’m inclined to give the Romney campaign half a pass here. It is hardly unusual for presidential candidates to hold events from which the media are excluded. You may recall that one of the worst moments of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was when he complained to supporters at a no-media event about Pennsylvanians who “cling to guns or religion.” In that case, a supporter named Mayhill Fowler, who also blogged for the Huffington Post, decided to write it up.

But Romney only gets half a pass because he and his handlers should have known that excluding reporters from an event in the “House of Journalism,” as Romenesko called it, would create unwanted controversy in a way that excluding them from a fundraiser in a hotel banquet hall wouldn’t.

Second, and more important, the Newseum’s response was reprehensible. I’m reasonably sure officials there didn’t know Romney was going to lower the cone of silence. Maybe it’s never happened before. But the proper response would have been to express chagrin and promise that steps would be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Reporters should never be kicked out of an event at the Newseum, whether it’s private or public. But as of this writing there’s been nothing from the Newseum other than Thompson’s statement and this tweet from Thursday:

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No doubt the Newseum needs the rent money. According to its tax filings for 2010, the most recent that’s publicly available at GuideStar, the museum took in $73.4 million and spent $78.8 million, for a deficit of $5.4 million.

On Thursday, though, Newseum officials stepped in it in a way that could end up costing them a lot more in future donations than they’ve ever made in private rentals. My guess is the proverbial high-level conversations are taking place right now.

By the way, Viser is back with a more comprehensive story today.

Update: Politico media reporter Dylan Byers takes a swipe at Calderone, his predecessor in the job, saying that Obama “did the exact same thing” at the Newseum back in March. Yes, it should have been news then. And it only underscores that it’s long past time for the Newseum to prohibit private groups that rent its facilities from banning reporters from their events.

Photo (cc) by David Monack and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Richard Adams

    “Reporters should never be kicked out of an event at the Newseum, whether it’s private or public.”

    Really Dan? What if it was a wedding or birthday party?

    (OK, not sure who’d hold a wedding at the Newseum but it’s a fine venue so not entirely crazy.)

    Yes, political events are always going to be different. And maybe there’s a more complex point to be made about Romney piggybacking off the back of the Newseum’s credibility by hiring it as a venue. That’s an argument I’d concede. But otherwise: a rental is a rental, surely.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Richard: Let’s see what new guidelines the Newseum announces next week.

  2. Richard Adams

    Indeed. I think the Newseum might want to work on its definition of what constitutes a “public event”.

  3. Sam Waters

    Despite the protestations of those in the media blogosphere, the Newseum’s response is correct: it’s a private event held by a private party (in this case the Romney campaign). The Newseum has no obligation to allow the media to cover a private event. If the opposite were true, I think many in the media would cry foul (hypocritically, of course) that private organizations are infringing upon people’s privacy by allowing anyone to be present at and report on their private events and moments.

    But most bizarre of the media’s concern over this non-issue issue is this assertion by the author: the Romney campaign kicking media out of the event created “unwanted controversy.” By whom? The media? Well of course it would. But I find it hard to believe most Americans care about this issue at all, or even know that it happened.

    Certainly, the media should have access to both presidential candidates as much as possible. But let’s not blow up an incident from a private event and try to make it into some kind of national scandal. The President already has enough national scandals on his plate that the media should be covering.

  4. C.E. Stead

    I would exceedingly interested to know who the reporters were – and if any of them are the SAME reporters that are sniffling about being ‘kicked out’ by Romney – at the Obama event in March. Apparently, they just left quietly then, secure in their conviction that that the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate weren’t necessary when a Progressive or Democrat makes closed door remarks.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: This isn’t about “reporters.” It’s about Matt Viser of the Globe, who covers the Romney campaign, not Obama. He says he wasn’t aware of the Obama event when he got kicked out of the Newseum yesterday. We all know that way too many Washington reporters accept this B.S. like sheep. Good for him for calling foul. And his story today does reference the earlier Obama event.

  5. L.K. Collins

    Let me ask you this, Dan: What right do you have to interfere with the contract between two private parties?

    You don’t have any, right?

    So, what seems to be BS is your politically motivated indignation.

  6. Aaron Read

    “Reporters should never be kicked out of an event at the Newseum, whether it’s private or public.” Really Dan? What if it was a wedding or birthday party?

    The point is that an institution like the Newseum, by virtue of its nature, should not have the option of kicking reporters out of any event…public or private. If renters don’t like it, then they shouldn’t frickin’ rent it.

    I wonder if this “moral lapse” (so to speak) is part of the reason why NPR stopped hosting Talk of the Nation on Wednesdays at the Newseum a few years back. Thank God they did. Can you imagine the right-wing frothingly making guilt-by-association on NPR if they were still there?

  7. Media-related sites, such as the Newseum and the National Press Club, shouldn’t rent to political operations unless the event is open to the press. Let the pols go rent from Marriott (full disclosure: I own 2 shares) or some other hotel venue.

  8. Mike Rice

    Reminds me of this quotation: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”
    Ronald Reagan

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: Although I’m not saying the Newseum doesn’t have a right to set its rental policies as it sees fit, let’s not forget that it’s a tax-exempt institution. As such, we’re all paying for the microphone indirectly.

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