Camera use splits Capitol reporters

An association of print journalists marshaled their forces yesterday against their broadcast-media brethren’s efforts to gain more access to members of Congress through the use of hand-held cameras.

“We do not endorse the use of hand-held video cameras on the second floor,” the Standing Committee of Correspondents of the daily-writing press gallery wrote in a letter to the Senate sergeant at arms yesterday. “We also do not want our interviews with senators in the hallway and away from the Ohio Clock to be recorded.”

The letter singled out the use of a “remote microphone combined with a camera placed at a distance” as unacceptable technology recently used by CNN reporter Joe Johns, who is facing allegations of “deception” and violating gallery rules after he interviewed Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) using a small, hand-held camera, allegedly without Stevens’s consent.

Susan Milligan, national political correspondent for the Boston Globe and chairwoman of the Standing Committee of Correspondents, said the letter was not intended to weigh into the Johns case but sought to clarify the daily reporters’ position on hand-held cameras on the second floor of the Capitol, an area designated for limited camera access.

Nevertheless, the timing of the letter on the heels of Stevens’s complaint only served to give his argument more weight.

Milligan said print reporters do not want to be filmed talking with senators when they do not know they are on camera and have no way of protecting their exclusive stories from the possibility of being picked up by a remote microphone.

“I don’t want to be in a conversation with a senator that I think is private that is picked up by a remote mike and a camera,” she said.

She said that access has already been negotiated and that media should abide by the rules.

“There are areas of the Capitol where access is restricted, and we have negotiated controlled access to those areas and we’ve signed those letters,” she said.

“This is not ‘The Real Word: Capitol Hill,’” she added.

Television journalists are bound by strict rules on when and where they can film lawmakers. Cameras are only allowed in the Ohio Clock corridor during the weekly party policy lunches.

Until last week’s complaint, Wilson said, the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (RTCA) had begun to make headway in a campaign to gain further access to members.

On Jan. 20, the seven-member executive board met and passed a resolution endorsing the use of small cameras on the Capitol campus. The group discussed the resolution with Senate leadership, which disapproved the proposal.

“The only thing that was on the table is that we take a camera to the stakeout position when we felt there was news without the advanced request permission of leadership,” Wilson said.

Senate Sergeant at Arms Bill Pickle denied the request in a letter yesterday.

Yesterday morning, members of the RTCA met to discuss whether Jones violated the rules and what action, if any, should be taken against their colleague.

Members expressed concern about the larger ramifications of the allegation on broadcast journalists as a whole, which have been pushing Senate leadership for more rights for several months.

The size and presence of the small handheld digital camera used by Johns was the main topic of discussion during the RTCA meeting led by Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson who chairs the organization.

“The rules as I have pointed out in about five months of negotiations with leadership are archaic because they do not take into account changing technology,” Wilson said.

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 — is initially from the standpoint of the CNN camera set up in the stakeout area outside the Senate Chamber near the Ohio Clock that Senate leaders have approved for use. 

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

On May 10, Stevens sent a formal complaint to Mike Mastrian, director of the Senate Radio and Television Gallery, alleging that he was not informed the interview was being filmed.

“The camera Mr. Johns used was so small — and the tactics he used so deceptive — that neither I nor two of my press people who were with me ever saw it,” the letter said.

The RTCA meeting, which lasted a little less than an hour, became heated at times when the prospect of revoking Johns’s press credentials was raised.

Fox News producer Jim Mills argued that while the use of the small camera is a legitimate issue, any image or interview taken in the approved area around the Ohio Clock should be on the record and useable.

“I feel like this meeting [was the result of] years and years of neglect for not pushing back on the First Amendment,” Mills said. “It is an abomination that we are having a meeting on this to challenge Joe Johns’s right to do his job in that hallway.”

Mills added that Stevens is known to be wary of the press and might have contempt for the First Amendment.

Stevens spokeswoman Lindsay Hayes denied that his feelings about the press have anything to do with the complaint: “Senator Stevens is always happy to speak to the press when his schedule allows. This has nothing to do with his feelings for the press in general.”

She added that while others familiar with the dispute may want to turn the issue into a First Amendment debate, from Stevens’s standpoint Johns was filming in an unauthorized area.

“What we saw [on the tape] is hardly offensive. I don’t think we should pull [Johns’s] credentials over this,” one member of the RTCA said.

Other members were more hesitant to take Johns’s side, expressing concern that the incident could result in further restrictions on broadcast journalists.

Johns, who is a member of the association and was given the opportunity to speak to his colleagues during the meeting, offered his version of the story.

“When I approached the senator near the Ohio Clock … it was not disrespectful. It was not an ambush,” Johns said. “It was not deception. I was a reporter in a room with other reporters who were on the record asking questions of people in the hall.”

He said he informed Stevens that he was being filmed and indicated that he pointed to the CNN camera set up for the Tuesday stakeout. But Johns would not comment on whether the exchange was taped in footage that was not aired during the segment, citing “legal issues.”

It also was not clear whether Johns directly pointed to the hand-held camera when he told Stevens he was being filmed.

“The second camera to me was a nonentity. I really wasn’t focused on it. … It was irrelevant because I’d never seen video used from such a little camera,” Johns said.

He added, “Let’s get real. … In an environment where people are walking around with microphones, with digital cameras, what difference does it make?”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom CNN also interviewed and filmed with the small camera for the piece, has not lodged a complaint. He could not be reached for comment before press time.