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Senators Warn FCC, Trump Administration About Freedom of the Press

Comes after CQ Roll Call reporter was pinned against a wall while covering the commission

Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley says it is customary for reporters to question public officials after meetings, as he is seen doing here. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley says it is customary for reporters to question public officials after meetings, as he is seen doing here. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senators, including Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, are warning the Federal Communications Commission about its treatment of reporters after a CQ Roll Call reporter was manhandled Thursday.

“The Federal Communications Commission needs to take a hard look at why this happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. As The Washington Post pointed out, it’s standard operating procedure for reporters to ask questions of public officials after meetings and news conferences,” the Iowa Republican said. “It happens all day, every day. There’s no good reason to put hands on a reporter who’s doing his or her job.”  

A pair of Senate Democrats are separately pressing the FCC for answers about the treatment of CQ Roll Call’s John M. Donnelly at Thursday’s open FCC hearing.

“Yesterday’s incident at the FCC is not an isolated one and seems to be a part of a larger pattern of hostility towards the press characteristic of this Administration, which underscores our serious concern. Recent examples … make this most recent incident a new low point in a disturbing trend,” Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Tom Udall of New Mexico wrote in a letter.

Donnelly, the senior defense reporter at CQ Roll Call and the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Team chairman and president of the Military Reporters & Editors Association, described being pinned by a pair of FCC security personnel when he attempted to question Commissioner Michael O’Rielly for a story that was not related to the day’s debate about net neutrality.

That incident, for which the FCC said it apologized, was the second noteworthy occurrence in recent weeks of confrontations between reporters attempting to ask questions and senior government officials.

Prominent Washington journalists were quick to respond after hearing about the confrontation, including New York Times chief Washington correspondent Carl Hulse.

“Outrageous and offensive. John is an accomplished veteran reporter and knows how to do his job in DC. This and WV arrest are ominous,” Hulse tweeted.

In a May 9 situation, referenced by Hulse, a reporter in West Virginia was arrested by police after attempting to question Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in a state Capitol hallway.

The West Virginia arrest was one of the incidents referenced by Hassan and Udall in an attachment to their letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. The senators also cited incidents from the 2016 presidential campaign, including when then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski physically grabbed reporter Michelle Fields at an event in Jupiter, Florida.

The two Democrats noted that the Trump administration allowed Russian state-run media to cover a meeting between the president and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while denying a similar opportunity to U.S. outlets.

“Given the FCC’s role as the primary authority for communications law and its regulatory role with respect to the media, the FCC should set a sterling example when it comes to supporting the First Amendment and freedom of the press for other government entities here in the United States and around the world,” Hassan and Udall wrote.

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