Charges continue in flap over handheld camera use in Senate

A CNN reporter, his lawyers and his colleague were allowed to review a letter issued by the Radio-Television Correspondents Association absolving him of any wrongdoing.

Reporter Joe Johns, the lawyers and producer Ted Barrett were given the chance to make changes to the letter delivered to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) yesterday, according to the sources.

The letter, which is signed by RTCA Chairman Brian Wilson, said that while Johns should not have been using a small, hand-held camera, he did not act “unethically or deceptively,” as Stevens alleged in a May 10 complaint.

Reporters are not allowed to use cameras on the second floor of the Capitol except during limited, pre-approved stakeout sessions. Stevens sent the complaint to Mike Mastrian, director of the Senate Radio and Television Gallery last week.

“We believe there is considerable evidence that Mr. Johns informed you that you were being recorded on a camera that was legally positioned inside the regular stakeout area …” the RTCA letter said. “In addition, it is widely understood — by journalists and senators alike — that conversations that take place in the Ohio Clock corridor in and around the Tuesday policy luncheons are on the record.”

Wilson said he alone takes full responsibility for the letter and indicated that no party was pleased with the entire outcome of the executive committee’s decision.

“Letters written by a committee of journalists often do undergo many rewrites, which as you might imagine is a difficult process,” Wilson said in an e-mail. “I alone wrote the final version and take full responsibility for the wording.”

A Senate source, however, argued that allowing the subject of the complaint to review the letter along with a colleague and his lawyers is evidence that the RTCA is not acting in good faith.

“The [RTCA] Executive Committee thinks that they hold all the cards and that there is nothing we can do to keep them from roaming the halls with cameras,” a Senate source said. “They need to come to the table in a good-faith way.”

The source also pointed out that in the draft version of the letter Wilson assures Stevens that “Mr. Johns will be reaching out to you and your office in a personal way to offer expressions of regret about this matter.”

The final version does not contain the phrase “to offer expressions of regret about this matter,” according to The Hill’s analysis of both versions.

Sources also said that Barrett, a colleague of Johns, did not recuse himself from the closed-door proceedings held by the RTCA committee, creating a potential conflict of interest.

Despite Barrett’s involvement, Wilson said the Johns decision was reached unanimously.

“[Barrett] approached me before the meeting and asked whether he should recuse himself, and I advised him I did not think it necessary,” Wilson said.

Wilson declined to elaborate about the closed-door session, saying that doing so would be “inappropriate.”

On May 9, Johns interviewed Stevens in the Ohio Clock corridor near the Senate floor for CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.” The video, shown during the RTCA meeting, showed Johns interviewing Stevens — who was obscured by a crowd of people in the shot. The shot was taken from the approved camera, which is set up in the stakeout area outside the Senate chamber and allowed during Senate luncheons.  

The shot then switches to a grainier, lower-quality image, where Stevens can be seen explaining Alaska’s financial situation. Johns’s producer, Steve Turnham, shot the scene.

In the third paragraph, the letter notes that the RTCA has sent a “message to Mr. Johns and his producer urging them to refrain from using these small handheld devices on Capitol Hill” while they work with the Senate leadership to develop “updated rules for cameras”

“I have been given personal assurance they will abide by this request,” Wilson wrote.

He also said the RTCA had sent an e-mail to its 2,600 members asking them to abide by the rules restricting cameras.

“From this day forward, the [RTCA] Executive Committee will take a dim view of — and will take strong action against — any RTCA member who chooses to ignore the current rules.”

But Wilson later vigorously disagreed with the rule itself.

“For more than five months the Executive Committee has been urging a rewrite of the rules to accommodate such changing technology,” it said. “We believe the rules, as they exist today, are outdated, unclear and do not take into account that video captured by cell phones and other widely used devices.”

The letter said Turnham’s use of a wireless microphone during the incident was unofficially approved through a “gentlemen’s agreement” by Amy Call, a spokeswoman for the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and Matrian.

“I had no discussions with the Executive Committee,” Call said.

Stevens spokeswoman Lindsay Hayes said the office has no issue with footage taken by Johns but is upset that the rules were ignored.

“The senator’s comments are not the issue here,” Hayes said. “Given that our office was not contacted prior to the interview, the senator handled the interview well and his comments provided balance to the piece.”

She added, “The issue is that CNN used an undisclosed camera in an unauthorized area, which is a violation of Senate rules.”

CNN did not provide an immediate comment.