WASHINGTON – The front of the Newseum has a 74-foot high marble engraving of the First Amendment, making it a massive monument to the freedom of the press sitting in a powerful corridor on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill.
Yet on Wednesday afternoon, following Mitt Romney’s 28-minute address, reporters were escorted out of the room where the presumptive Republican nominee was about to take questions from a group of some of the country’s most important business titans.
Cathy Trost, a vice president at the Newseum, said the matter was “very simple.” The museum rents out space to outside groups – in this case the Business Roundtable – and lets them decide whether to open their events to the public.
“It’s their space. They set the rules for what contents they put on in their program and what press rules they apply,” she said.
When asked about the irony of allowing a portion of a building built for press freedoms to be cordoned off from reporters, she said, “Revenues from event rentals help with the museum’s mission, which is to educate the public about a free press.”
She pointed out that all museum exhibits are open to the press, as are events that are sponsored by the museum.
Officials at the Business Roundtable said they were under no obligation to open their meetings to the media. They also pointed out that President Obama spoke before their group in March – also at the Newseum, and under the same press guidelines.
“Our responsibility is to our CEO members, who pay dues to the Roundtable and not to the press,” said Tita Freeman; senior vice president of the Business Roundtable. “Our job is to provide a forum for our members to come and have dialogue on the most pressing issues facing our country with leaders from the highest echelons from government. And we want that dialogue to be candid and robust. In order to do that we keep the meetings closed to press.”
By letting the media hear Romney’s prepared remarks, Freeman said, “I think we did a service to the news media.”
The issue may be moot in the future. The Business Roundtable is opening new offices, with enough conference space so the group won’t need to rent space from the Newseum.