Friday, July 1, 2022

Don't believe the WH manipulates and selects press journalists

A group of 68 journalists sent a rare protest letter to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre Thursday asking that President Biden’s staff abandon a mysterious pre-screening process and reopen large events to all journalists.

TV correspondents, famed veteran reporters and leaders of the White House Correspondents’ Association rallied behind the call to end year-old restrictions on venues such as the East Room that in past administrations were “open press.”

Biden aides have refused to tell the Correspondents’ Association the selection criteria for presidential events and individual reporters have received an array of conflicting explanations, resulting in a widespread belief that the practice is meant to shape the variety of questions presented to the president.

“The current method of allowing a limited number of reporters into these events is not only restrictive and antithetical to the concept of a free press, but it has been done without any transparent process into how reporters are selected to cover these events,” the letter says.

“The continued inability of the White House to be candid and transparent about the selection process for reporters attending his remarks undermines President Biden’s credibility when he says he is a defender of the First Amendment,” it continues.

“The incongruity of these restrictions underscores the belief by many reporters that the administration seeks to limit access to the president by anyone outside of the pool, or anyone who might ask a question the administration doesn’t want asked.”

“Let us be candid,” the letter goes on. “Our job is not to be liked, nor is it to be concerned about whether or not you like what we ask. Reporters’ ability to question the most powerful man in our government shouldn’t be discretionary.”

“The administration’s continued efforts to limit access to the president cannot be defended,” it adds. “Any notion that space is ‘limited’ is not supported by the fact that every other president before Biden (including Trump) allowed full access to the very same spaces without making us fill out a request form prior to admittance.”

The White House press office ended COVID-19 capacity restrictions for the briefing room in early June 2021, but has continued with “spacing constraints.” 
Getty Images

The letter concludes, “Thank you for your attention to these ahistorical problems. We ask you to see to it that the protocols are changed back to the access norms to which we are accustomed.”

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, CBS’s Ed O’Keefe and Fox News’ Jacqui Heinrich and Kevin Corke signed the letter, as did legendary former ABC anchor and White House reporter Sam Donaldson, TheGrio’s April Ryan, Newsmax’s James Rosen, Gray Television’s Jon Decker and Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett.

The letter was drafted by veteran journalist Brian Karem, who writes for Salon. The second signature was from CBS News Radio’s Steven Portnoy, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which privately lobbied against the practice for months. A reporter for The Post signed third and helped circulate the document.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre claims “I actually don’t know” how the selection process works, but denied it amounted to “blacklisting.” 
AP/Susan Walsh

Two other Correspondents’ Association board members — Todd GIllman of The Dallas Morning News and Francesca Chambers of USA Today — signed, as did past presidents of the association Tom DeFrank and George Condon, both of National Journal, and all five candidates in this year’s association election, including Eugene Daniels of Politico and Sara Cook of CBS.

In all, reporters assigned to more than half of the seats in the White House briefing room signed the letter.

High-profile journalists who reported on the Trump administration — including Jonathan Swan of Axios and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times — signed, as did journalists with decades of experience in the West Wing, such as Peter Baker of the Times, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times and John Gizzi of Newsmax, as well as DeFrank and Condon.

The letter was a rare airing of grievances. Some signers said they preferred to quietly communicate disagreements to the press office to resolve issues amicably and efficiently, but that attempting that route had been fruitless for more than a year.

The practice began last year as officials cited “spacing constraints” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pre-screening has endured long after the White House ended indoor mask rules and returned to full-capacity briefings in early June 2021.

In a sign of how little the coronavirus bears on current planning, Biden this month told guests that were packed tightly into the East Room for a Pride Month event that they would have to lean on one another because they were too crammed together to sit down.

Jean-Pierre said at a June briefing “I actually don’t know” how the selection process works, but denied it amounted to “blacklisting” of certain outlets or reporters.

Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki in October also declined to share the criteria, saying at a briefing, “I don’t have any more information on that.”

CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins
CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is one of the many journalist who signed the letter.
AP/Alex Brandon

Behind closed doors, the Correspondents’ Association failed in attempts to either learn the selection criteria or convince the press office to reopen spaces ordinarily accessible to all reporters.

DeFrank said he signed the letter to fight against the erosion of press access to the president.

“Having covered the White House since June of 1968 as a Newsweek intern, I’ve seen a troubling erosion in access that was once routine,” he said.

Over the past year, reporters were given a wide range of conflicting explanations of how the selection for events works, causing frustrations to mount.

One journalist who signed the letter said he was told by a prominent press officer that a random number generator determined who got in — though that wouldn’t explain why some news outlets can go more than six months without selection.

Other journalists were told it was “first come, first served,” before the explanation was anecdotally debunked when reporters who RSVPed later than them got in.Another journalist heard that the decisions were made in part based on the size of an outlet’s audience and that there was some sort of rotation, though that too does not appear accurate as months passed with certain outlets chosen more often than others with no apparent relation to size.

Karem, meanwhile, wrote in an April letter to Psaki that “I’ve been told point-blank that part of the reason for [the] restriction — at least in my case — is because I’m not liked and that I give you all grief.”

Veteran journalists and former press officers previously noted the exceptional change in the treatment of large events in the East Room and the White House-adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building’s auditorium. 

“The East Room hasn’t shrunk in recent years so it’s hard to imagine why space constraints would suddenly require restricting the number of journalists who cover events there,” Baker said in August last year.

“And it raises the question of what they base these decisions on — is it first-come, first-serve, or are they picking and choosing among reporters or news organizations based on some other criteria? If it’s the latter, that would be potentially troubling.”

Portnoy directly told Biden of the press corps’ wishes at a July 15, 2021, press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying that he hoped the East Room, the largest indoor space at the White House, would return to its former status.

“We’re looking forward to the day we can have even more reporters all the way to the back of the room,” Portnoy told Biden, before asking his questions.

Biden responded, “Obviously I know why they elected you president.”

Jean-Pierre did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment

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