Skip to comments.Background checks on reporters a bad idea
Posted on 09/09/2002 7:38:23 AM PDT by 2banana
Background checks on reporters a bad idea
By Lillian Swanson Inquirer Columnist
A rule that takes effect today requires reporters who work in the Harrisburg Capitol to undergo criminal background checks - unless they wait in line with school groups, Boy Scouts groups and other visitors to pass through metal detectors at the doors.
The rule, which leaves key questions unanswered, has spawned protests from about 25 reporters affected.
"Our position is that we have been singled out," said John Baer, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and president of the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.
The complaints have made their way to Gov. Schweiker's office, where his chief of staff, Dave Sanko, will meet with Baer to listen to the concerns.
Reporters for The Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Associated Press and Harrisburg Patriot-News are among those who have desks in the statehouse newsroom. Some have complied with the background checks; others have refused.
The brouhaha began a few weeks ago as reporters got wind that the Department of General Services was writing more rules to button down security. The official came down late on Aug. 30, just before the Labor Day weekend.
Metal detectors and X-ray machines would soon be placed at five visitors' entrances. Lawmakers and their staffs would be granted easy-access cards, without background checks, because the DGS, a part of the executive branch, doesn't make rules for the legislature. The cards will permit legislators and their staffers to bypass those metal detectors and use the Capitol's underground garage.
State agency workers already are required to have criminal checks to land a government job.
That left those 25 reporters, many of whom have worked for years in the Capitol, to give their Social Security numbers to state police.
Of course, they could decline, but they would be denied access to the parking garage and would have to go through metal detectors every time they entered the building.
"It's ludicrous on its face," Baer said of the rule affecting reporters. "The only people who go to jail are the people we cover." He has a point. In the last two years, at least six state lawmakers have resigned after criminal convictions.
"It's high-handed stuff," said Tom Fitzgerald, who reports from the Capitol for The Inquirer. He and a colleague, Amy Worden, reluctantly agreed to the background check, and received word that they had passed.
"We don't know what 'passed' means," Fitzgerald said, noting he had many questions. Who will have access to the information that the state police find? What crime would keep a reporter from getting an access card?
DGS press secretary Samantha Elliott said the department had the best of intentions in offering access cards to reporters. "We were trying to make it easier because they are here all the time," she said. "We thought we were helping them out."
Elliott said she thought the results of the background checks would remain with state police. She was unable to say what kind of crime would cause a reporter to fail. "Anything that is a security or safety risk," she said.
Criminal background checks may seem innocuous. But think about the work reporters do, ferreting out public information that officials may try to keep secret. It's understandable why reporters are concerned about anyone gathering private information about them and possibly using it in retaliation. Background checks could be the beginning of a slippery slope toward government regulation. Is licensing down the road?
Baer's association suggested that reporters' employers, their newspapers, could provide letters vouching for them, but that offer was rejected.
Schweiker should latch onto this offer as a good way out of a bad rule that ignores the fundamental independence of the press. He should reverse a rule that could have a chilling effect on the public's right to know how its government works.
Lillian Swanson is the reader advocate. Contact her at 215-854-2206 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Criminal background checks may seem innocuous. But think about the work reporters do, ferreting out public information that officials may try to keep secret. It's understandable why reporters are concerned about anyone gathering private information about them and possibly using it in retaliation. Background checks could be the beginning of a slippery slope toward government regulation. Is licensing down the road?"
You seem upset that you might need a background check to exercise a civil right enumerated in the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. You also seem to think that this might be a "slippery slope" toward even more regulation.
I do not think you see the irony in this as the majority of the press (and the Philadelphia Inquirer in particular) was all in favor of background checks for law abiding citizens when they wanted to exercise a civil right enumerated in the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution.
I do seem to recall that Al Qaeda operatives have posed as journalists in order to affect a hit.
I guess they're above the law, right?
Sorry, they wipe with toilet paper the same as everyone else. Check 'em all....
Know your enemy and IMHO most of them are America haters.
The leader of the Northern Alliance was assassinated right before 9/11 by two Al Qaeda operatives posing as journalists from Belgium.
"When they came for the [X]s I was silent, because I wasn't a [X]."
...And while we're at it, how about a five-day 'cooling off' period before stories can be published, just in case a journalist might say something in the heat of the moment he'd later regret? It would be for their own good. ;^)
I wonder if we could get a grant from the FEDS to fund the project?
And tactically, it would be far easier for radical islamists to duplicate this type of event then it would be to pull off another hijacking.
Background check 'em all.
SPOT ON! That was my thought too while reading this whine.
Once I was approached by a reporter wanting an interview. I said, "Fine. How much you paying?"
The reporter appeared to go into some sort of shock, "We don't pay for interviews"
I proceeded to point out that their news program helped raise funds for their network. A news program only attracts views if there are interesting interviews or interesting news events. Since I would be contributing towards an interview that would help a program earn money for a network that depended upon advertisers, I felt it appropriate to be compensated for my efforts.
The interview never happened, darn.
Maybe I can walk down the street and ask someone to fix my house's roof for free.
Indeed, you have long been singled out for special treatment. I'm glad to hear that's finally being recognized and addressed, however minimally.