February 26, 1996


Internet Service Is Denied Admission to Capitol Chambers for Working Journalists

WASHINGTON -- AWashington reporter is as easily identifiable these days as the Washington Monument: look for the yellow tag on a neck chain, symbol of membership in the House and Senate press galleries. More than a ticket to working space in the Capitol, it is a badge of reportorial respectability, an entree to a business club -- albeit one with heaps of rancid overcoats and Government-issue sofas -- run by working journalists, for working journalists.

Last month Vigdor Schreibman pounded on the clubhouse door and was refused admission. Gallery officials said he had failed to meet the qualification of being a working journalist that is required of all members. That is not unheard of; other applicants have failed to meet the same standard.

But Mr. Schreibman's case differs in one important respect: His work appears solely on computer screens, at two Internet sites that he says have been visited by thousands of readers. He is the first Internet-based writer to seek accreditation from the Congressional press galleries.

So his rejection raises a discomfiting question: When anyone with a laptop can publish to millions, what makes a so-called working journalist special?

Not much, Mr. Schreibman might say. "I run a legitimate news service," he said in a telephone interview. "Ten thousand people read what I say. What's the basis for my rejection?"

The pat answer is that lines have to be drawn somewhere or the galleries would be overrun. Congress gave reporters control of the galleries in 1879, in part because lobbyists and other hangers-on were masquerading as reporters to gain access to legislators, and underpaid reporters were themselves moonlighting as lobbyists.

Today there are four galleries, one each for daily publications, periodicals, broadcast outlets and photographers. Their members have access to press rooms that ring the House and Senate, and they can hail legislators off the chamber floors for interviews.

Press passes are a currency in their own right: holding one is a prerequisite to obtaining a more exclusive White House pass and is a great help in getting working space at party conventions.

The periodical gallery, to which Mr. Schreibman sought access, admits only "bona fide resident correspondents of reputable standing, giving their chief attention to the gathering and reporting of news," according to the gallery's published rules. Generally, members must work for a publication that covers Washington regularly and exists largely on advertising or subscription revenues.

About 2,000 of the city's 10,000 magazine and newsletter reporters meet those standards. Many of the rest work for house organs or trade associations that lobby Congress.

Mr. Schreibman said he believed he met the standards, too, though his publication, the Federal Information News Syndicate, is a virtual unknown. FINS, as he calls his service, consists of dense monographs that outline "the emerging philosophy of the information age." Its Internet address (gopher://gopher.inforM. is a screenful of alphabet soup. The site itself sports no graphics, or even color.

Mr. Schreibman was not a journalist by trade; he says he made a fortune in Puerto Rican real estate. Now, in retirement, he calls himself "a journalist and a constitutional scholar with an independent worldview." He asks a $2.95-a-year subscription fee for FINS, though anyone can view the site. He would not say how many readers had sent him checks.

Richard S. Dunham, the Congressional correspondent for Business Week magazine, heads the executive committee of the periodical gallery. He said that the gallery had rejected Mr. Schreibman because it concluded that FINS was less a commercial venture than a sideline or hobby. The fact that it is distributed over the Internet, Mr. Dunham said, had nothing to do with the rejection.

"We've had many applications from one-man publications," he said. "Any person with a fax machine who sends out his meditations and musings can't get a press card. A person who gets credentials has to be a legitimate journalist."

What constitutes legitimacy is the $2.95 question.

Not so long ago the definition was simpler: Real journalists, by and large, worked in newsrooms, had book contracts or sat in studios. Nobody could afford to employ them unless enough people read, listened or tuned in to generate a profit. If they did, legitimacy was a given.

Little of that seems given any more.

There can be little doubt that the Internet is a legitimate medium. Many established publications, including this newspaper, have opened home pages on the Internet, and some are seeking space for Internet staffs at the political conventions.

Nor is the absence of paying subscribers evidence of illegitimacy. While FINS was turned down, the gallery appears poised to admit another Internet applicant for credentials, a flashy political home page dubbed PoliticsUSA ( Steve Hull, the president and chief executive of the venture, says it draws about 200,000 Internet browsers daily, in large part because it is free.

National Journal, a Washington policy magazine, operates the site with American Political Network Inc., a publisher of computer newsletters like Hotline, a popular daily summary of political doings.

Mr. Schreibman hinted that he would go to court if his denial stood. The journalists themselves say they want to keep the gallery doors open as wide as possible without creating a mob. But they concede that that is easier said than done.

They must tread lightly. According to Donald Ritchie, the assistant Senate historian and the author of "Press Gallery," a history of Washington correspondence (Harvard Press, 1991), Washington reporters have an unfortunate history of using technology as an excuse to exclude competitors.

The first gallery, for example, cleared lobbyists from the room by denying credentials to any reporter who did not file daily reports by telegraph. That had the not-unintended effect of removing women and black correspondents from Congress, none of whom could afford to file by telegraph. Women did not return until World War II; the next black reporter did not gain admittance until 1947, and only then after the Senate Rules Committee ordered it.

Today's journalistic establishment says it is determined to be bias free. "None of us has a problem with the medium in which they publish," Alan Fram, the Associated Press correspondent who heads the executive committee of the daily press gallery, said last week of the Internet publications. "This is arguably the way media is heading. The question becomes: If we're going to admit such critters, how do we avoid opening the barn door to anyone with a home page?"

How, indeed? With the growth of the Internet, reporters for the established press are Gullivers among throngs of Lilliputians. And in the minds of the Lilliputians, legitimacy is increasingly in the eye of the beholder.

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