WASHINGTON — A reporter who covers the Federal Communications Commission says he was physically blocked by two guards from asking questions of FCC officials after a news conference this week and then forced out of the agency’s headquarters in Southwest D.C.
John Donnelly, a reporter with the Capitol Hill publication, CQ Roll Call, told WTOP the two guards pinned him against a wall with their backs as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly walked through a public hallway after a news conference.
The guards “treated me as if I had committed some crime or was a security threat, when in fact I was obviously not,” Donnelly told WTOP. “I had my press pass displayed; I had a notebook; I was trying to ask a question. I wasn’t lunging at anyone.”
Donnelly tweeted about the incident Thursday, and an account of the incident was also released by the National Press Club, where Donnelly serves as the chairman of the group’s “Press Freedom Team.”
— John M. Donnelly (@johnmdonnelly) May 18, 2017
Donnelly said he doesn’t know if the guards were acting on their own but has no knowledge to suggest otherwise.
“It may just be a case of a sort-of mall cop run amok, and I have no evidence that there’s anything more than that,” Donnelly described the incident. “But it’s just unacceptable.”
In an email, Brian Hart, FCC’s director of media relations, said: “We apologized to Mr. Donnelly more than once and let him know that the FCC was on heightened alert today based on several threats.”
In a series of tweets to Donnelly Thursday, O’Rielly, a Republican appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama in 2013, also personally apologized to Donnelly and said he didn’t recognize the reporter in the hallway or see any “physical touching.”
— Mike O’Rielly (@mikeofcc) May 18, 2017
“I do appreciate their apology, which came only after I confronted them with it,” Donnelly said. “But, it’s not about me. I want to know that the next reporter who goes there to ask a question of an official is not going to be treated like this.”
During the altercation, Donnelly said guards asked him why he didn’t ask his question during the formal news conference. Donnelly told WTOP he waited to ask his question, because he was working on another story that wasn’t the subject of the conference.
“So, I did what reporters do every day in Washington,” he said. “I positioned myself in a place where I could ask a question … and if somebody in an official capacity in Washington doesn’t want to answer a question from a reporter, all they do is smile and say, ‘Have a nice day,’ and walk on.”
The press club’s account of the incident identified one of the guards as Frederick Bucher, who was also accused last summer of confiscating a reporter’s press credentials after the reporter talked to a protester at an FCC meeting.
The incident is the second recent incident of a reporter being blocked from asking government officials questions. A West Virginia journalist was arrested in the state capitol earlier this month and now faces charges after repeatedly asking U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question. Police said the journalist, Daniel Ralph Heyman, was “aggressively breaching” Price’s Secret Service detail.
Donnelly said he’s thankful for the support he’s received from other reporters.
“I just worry that once the storm passes, the FCC will not do anything differently … That’s what I want: I want to make sure that they have a climate over there and a culture that is open basically to the First Amendment,” he said.
WTOP’s Rich Johnson contributed to this report.