Secret Service Backs Down on Demands for Background Checks on Journalists Covering Party Conventions
By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA:: The Secret Service had a fight on its hands after announcing in April that it planned to run background checks on the 15,000 journalists seeking credentials for the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions.
Officials never laid out the criteria for vetting, but said any journalist who failed a check would be denied access – with no chance of appeal.
Journalists are accustomed to being vetted for access to secure areas at conventions and other high-profile events, such as Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. But checks have never been routine for reporting from public areas of those gatherings.
Of even greater concern was the agency’s secrecy in deciding who would pass and who would fail a background check, and why.
Journalists first learned of the agency’s plans during walk-throughs at convention sites. BuzzFeed Washington Bureau Chief John Stanton was among those urging revolt.
“It creates a logistical burden, a troubling precedent for their ability to have almost de facto say in who is qualified to be a reporter at these events,” Stanton said in a strongly worded letter to fellow journalists. “What if they use this precedent to extend to other campaign events or any government events?”
The protestations that Stanton set in motion appear to have worked.
This week, the Secret Service issued a memo clarifying its position. It says that journalists will be allowed to attend both conventions without background checks provided they receive a press ticket prior to the events. The press tickets give them access to the same public spaces as regular attendees but not to the areas secured by the Secret Service.
Further, no background checks will be required for reporters entering the press filing center at the Republican convention, which the Secret Service previously designed as a secure zone. Reporters with credentials will be able to enter the convention via a special shuttle from the filing center. The Democratic Convention has a filing center on site.
For journalists seeking access to secure areas, background checks are still required, But if they are denied, they now have the right to know why.
In announcing the checks, the Secret Service played the national security card. But it felt more like a way to crack down on reporting – to selectively decide who would get to cover the conventions.
The Secret Service denies all of that, but the agency has given the media valid reasons to distrust its objectivity.
The agency has been marred by controversy in recent years and has had a strained relationship with the media. In recent days, for instance, the press has reported on the agency being forced to discipline 41 of its own employees for illegally accessing information about a member of Congress last year.
In February, the nation saw a recording of a physical altercation between a Secret Service agent and a journalist at a Trump rally, with the agent appearing to tackle and choke a Time magazine photographer. Agents also have been accused of blocking reporters’ access to the candidates throughout the campaign.
Secret Service officials said the controversy over background was nothing more than a misunderstanding. But when repeatedly asked to meet with members of the media to explain the new policy, the agency refused to do so.
As journalists, we understand as well as any American that the Secret Service has a vital job to do. But does the Secret Service understand that we have a vital job to do, too?