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FCC Responds to Senate Query on Reporter Incident

Official response does not satisfy critics

Ajit Pait, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, did not satisfy critics with his response to the incident between FCC security and a reporter. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Ajit Pait, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, did not satisfy critics with his response to the incident between FCC security and a reporter. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Federal Communications Commission has responded to a Senate query about an altercation between a CQ Roll Call reporter and the agency’s security, but lawmakers are not satisfied with the explanation.

Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire had questions about an incident in which reporter John M. Donnelly reported being pinned by a security officer when trying to question Commissioner Michael O’Rielly at the conclusion of an open meeting.

“The physical contact between one of the Commission’s security officers and Mr. Donnelly should not have occurred. This is true even though the security officials say that the contact was inadvertent,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in the June 2 letter. “Likewise, following the incident, Mr. Donnelly should not have been asked to leave the building.”

Pai said that while there was no video evidence of what took place, the FCC’s personnel had a different view of what happened. In addition, Donnelly had drawn scrutiny from security officers for what they viewed as attempts to enter restricted spaces at the commission offices.

“[N]umerous threats directed towards the FCC have been received since the Commission’s April 20th open meeting, including death threats targeted specifically to one or more members of the Commission. As a result, at the FCC’s May 18th open meeting, the FCC’s security team was operating under heightened awareness for potential disruptions and threats before, during, and after the meeting,” Pai wrote.

Donnelly said Pai’s version of events was off base, particularly as it pertained to his whereabouts.

“I never attempted to enter a restricted area. That is false,” Donnelly said. “Even if the guards had somehow convinced themselves that I was trying to enter a restricted area, that does not excuse what they did.”

The National Press Club is siding with Donnelly, who serves as the chairman of the Club’s Press Freedom Team.

“We believe John. One reason that this incident prompted such a widespread and vehement reaction among the press corps is his standing,” Press Club President Jeff Ballou and Journalism Institute President Barbara Cochran wrote in a response to the FCC letter. “He is widely recognized by his colleagues as an absolute pro: polite, serious and the furthest thing from a showboater. So the account of the events you have given the Senate simply does not ring true to us.”

In the letter to Pai, the National Press Club invited the FCC to participate in a summit planned for this year on challenges for journalism access and security.

Hassan and Udall continued to have concerns about the incident at the FCC after reviewing Pai’s response.

“I appreciate that Chairman Pai has acknowledged that the deeply troubling incident involving FCC security’s mistreatment of a journalist following a recent press conference at FCC headquarters never should have happened. However, I do have concerns that the FCC continues to downplay the account of a respected Washington journalist,” Hassan said in a statement. “As we noted in our letter, this incident is particularly troubling because it seems to be part of a larger pattern by the Trump Administration of hostility toward the press.”

In his own statement, Udall explained that interactions between federal officials and journalists of the type Donnelly was attempting are commonplace and deserving of protection.

“Physical intimidation of working credentialed reporters undermines the constitutional right to freedom of the press, and I would expect a chairman of a federal agency created to ensure public access to information would join Senator Hassan and me in our deep concern,” Udall said. “It is understandable that security was high at the FCC hearing on May 18. But I’m extremely concerned that the FCC security wasn’t able to better balance the need to ensure access and safety.”

Udall said public officials do not always respond to queries from reporters outside of formal news conferences.

“While we don’t always have time to respond, experienced security and public officials should be able to manage a reporter asking questions — starting with asking for his press credentials — without needing to physically separate them,” the New Mexico Democrat said.

Donnelly also said his recollection did not match the FCC’s contention that officials with O’Rielly were not aware he was a credentialed member of the media.

“As for the supposedly ‘inadvertent’ physical contact with me: If it was an accident, then why didn’t they say so then or apologize? When I asked them then and there why I was knocked backwards, the head of security, Frederick Bucher, did not deny doing so but instead asked me why I hadn’t asked my question during the press conference,” Donnelly said. “That tells you they knew I was a reporter and they felt justified in knocking me back.”

“Lastly, Pai’s denial that I was pinned against the wall is also wrong. I could not move for several seconds as they leaned into me,” Donnelly said.

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