Steve Herman, chief national correspondent for the Voice of America and JURIST's journalist-in-residence, explores the fraught historic relations between the White House and its press corps...
Tensions between U.S. presidents and the press date back to George Washington. America’s founding father found himself gnashing his hippopotamus ivory dentures when newspapers accused him of monarchical rule. Few subsequent American leaders have been spared harsh media criticism.
Abe Lincoln was lambasted by some of the most influential newspapers of his time for his anti-slavery views, his Gettysburg Address panned. The Republican fought back against hostile journalists, even imprisoning some Democratic editors. Woodrow Wilson, under the guise of World War censorship, overtly censored the press and created a government-run national newspaper, the Official Bulletin, to try to advance the party line. Richard Nixon had numerous reporters on his enemies list. Donald Trump called out his perceived adversaries by name, sometimes while they were questioning him at news conferences. The twice-impeached president categorically labeled the mainstream media with the Stalinist tag “enemies of the people.”
Joe Biden acknowledges losing what he would call his Irish temper occasionally in exchanges with journalists. He is quick to apologize. But there is a festering drama involving his press office and some of the reporters who cover the 46th president. This stems from an announcement to require all journalists holding a coveted White House ‘hard pass’ to immediately reapply for credentials, along with compelling applicants to promise to behave better or face expulsion. The Trump administration lost separate court battles to yank hard passes from two reporters because judges ruled their rights to due process were violated by the White House, which did not have adequate written standards for conduct.
Officials hope the new procedures will bring decorum to campus, noting ill-timed outbursts by gadflies who are frustrated by repeated attempts to get press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s attention. The briefing room sideliners and backbenchers, for decades, have hectored with serious and silly questions. One inquisitor from India has long had a fixation about rules regarding mango imports. He is among several regulars whose bylines cannot be found in online searches. There have been complaints by peers about a freelance photographer who tends to focus his lens more on female journalists in the press corps than on newsmakers and has initiated South Lawn arguments over ladder positioning.
The White House Correspondents’ Association manages the seating chart for the briefing room (which is by organization, not individuals). The White House press office determines who is credentialed for the premises and it has traditionally taken a more lax approach than the criteria for WHCA full membership.
Eccentrics in the White House press corps are a tradition. Presidents and press secretaries have embraced some as well-timed foils. Trude Feldman was a favorite of presidents from Nixon to Clinton for her softball questions. She did have her credentials suspended in 2001 when caught snooping at a White House official’s desk after hours. Defrocked Episcopal priest Les Kinsolving, who Carter compared to a pesky gnat, once shouted at Jay Carney, press secretary for Barack Obama, demanding to know the president’s stance on polygamy.
In an earlier era, May Craig, a diminutive no-nonsense scribe, usually seen wearing a flowery hat, covered every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson. She was unwittingly used by John Kennedy as the set-up for his humorous retorts during news conferences.
Not all reporters are buying the line the new procedures are meant to manage security risks, ensure transparency and allow adequate elbow room for those with legitimate needs to regularly be inside the White House. Some contend it is just a ruse to ensure that Jean-Pierre and the 80-year-old president running for re-election avoid deep scrutiny. Of particular ire to some in the current administration are reporters from several conservative outlets, including Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and the New York Post, who regularly pose questions about the possible impending legal charges against Biden’s son, Hunter. The press secretary’s occasional stumbles are also fodder for the right-wing press. Her defenders note her lengthy presence several times a week at the briefing room lectern and graciousness in deferring to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby some of the wonkier geo-political questions. Biden himself regularly responds to numerous questions from the daily pool of reporters invited into the Oval Office and other rooms when he holds events at the White House and on the tarmac for Air Force One departures and landings.
These casual encounters with presidents can produce newsy quotes or occasional gaffes. There are also the joint news conferences with visiting foreign leaders where a maximum of four American and visiting overseas journalists are called on. These events are not seen as sufficient by many White House reporters. They want Biden to hold regular formal solo news conferences. The Washington Post, which endorsed Biden over incumbent Trump in 2020, is on their side, calling the president a “news media evader.” Nixon and Reagan are the only presidents over the past century to hold fewer news conferences than Biden.
As a correspondent who was at the White House for nearly the entire Trump administration and also covered on site the first eight months of Biden’s term, I am skeptical the scheduled but infrequent formal news conferences yield better insight into a president’s thinking over the recurring scrums. They can, however, reveal a leader’s grasp of the issues and levels of stamina and patience. Most presidents rehearse with staff for the live televised East Room events and the reporters, usually from the wire services and TV networks, who get called on are frequently pre-selected. As I recently reported, there were suspicions of collusion late last month when a correspondent asked Biden a question very similar to what was written on a card the president held while facing journalists in the White House Rose Garden.
I do not recall any complaints in past administration about too many press availabilities, although President Johnson was known to bore with his marathon off-the-record bull sessions on Air Force One. Our appetites for presidential quotes and sound bites, however, are usually insatiable. As a radio pool reporter sometimes holding a microphone on a long boom pole for more than hour above Trump’s head, I would strain to keep the apparatus steady above the camera lenses, my lips soundlessly pleading “enough already.”
Steve Herman is the chief national correspondent for the Voice of America and 2022-23 JURIST News journalist-in-residence. His comments do not reflect the views of VOA or its parent organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
Suggested citation: Steve Herman, White House at Odds With the Reporters It Hosts. That’s Nothing New, JURIST – Professional Commentary, May 26, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/05/white-house-at-odds/.
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