Breitbart.com’s request for permanent Capitol Hill press credentials is sparking concern from former members of the committee that approves those passes, who say Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon’s new White House advisory role could pose a “shady” conflict.
Politico recently reported that Breitbart, the far-right conservative website headed by Bannon for years, had applied for permanent credentials with the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Gallery, which decides who may receive the coveted credentials.
The request comes as Bannon, the recent chair/CEO of Breitbart, was named chief strategist and senior counselor for President-elect Donald Trump. (Bannon has been “on leave” from the site since he left to help head Trump's campaign in August.)
The Standing Committee’s policy expressly forbids any news organization with a conflict of interest to receive a credential. This week, Media Matters issued an open letter calling on the committee to reject the credential request “based on Breitbart’s disqualifying inability to demonstrate editorial independence as required” by the committee rules.
Given Bannon’s ties to Breitbart, former members of the committee -- which is comprised of Congressional correspondents -- fear it could pose a problem. They requested anonymity due to concerns about retaliation.
“You would be terribly concerned about conflict of interest and how to guard against this,” said one former committee member. “On the face of it, the question people have is, ‘are we comfortable with the fact that someone in the White House now seems to have potentially this role influencing what appears in a publication?’ You can’t know that until you look at the structure. My first question would be can he reach over any type of firewall in terms of what stories are covered?
“You have to be editorially independent from anything that’s not a news organization and by virtue of having someone in the White House and having editorial influence over Breitbart, if he did, he would violate the standard.”
Another former committee member echoed that view.
“That would be something to be raised by the committee, it won’t be just rubber-stamped for it I assume,” the former member said. “You need to know if there is a clear separation from the ownership. The concern they normally have is if there is a potential for conflict of interest between what the ownership is doing and the reporting.”
The person added, “If he took a leave of absence, you would have to take his word for it that he would not be interfering, they would have to look at it carefully. I don’t think they would take his word for it. It seems likely they would take a hard look and make sure it is correct.”
A third former committee member said a Breitbert credential “sounds a little shady.”
“It sounds like something that if we were on the standing committee, we would have to look at closely,” the correspondent said. “That is the biggest role of the committee, making sure there is that firewall. … The White House and Congress are obviously very closely related, if you are someone who might benefit from what happens on one of those sides and can benefit financially from one of those things it can get really mixed up.”
Another former committee member said this was the first such conflict to arise in their time in the congressional press corps.
“I’ve never seen a situation where somebody in the administration had a connection to a news organization that is seeking a credential,” the former member said. “The concern is that if it’s not an independent news organization, the person would be acting as an agent for the administration on the hill. You don’t want someone acting as a lobbyist.”