The topic brought to mind a specific instance: “In one case, and I won’t say the name, but in one case, I was asked to on behalf of the WHCA to release a statement criticizing a reporter’s story,” said Mason, to a wave of disbelief in the conference room. “And I said ‘No,’ because that’s not what we do and that’s not something we would ever do.”
For background, the White House Correspondents’ Association has a mission of ensuring “a strong free press and robust coverage of the presidency by advocating for access by the media to the President, White House events and administration officials.” The idea is to bug whatever administration is occupying the White House for as much official face time as possible — and that includes interviews, photo availability and wide-open press briefings, which have become an endangered species under President Trump.
WHCA leaders spent as much time explaining what they do not do as what they actually do. They do not issue media credentials to the White House. They do not decide who gets called on in briefings. And they certainly do not cast editorial judgment on the work of their member organizations.
That White House officials ever supposed that the WHCA would indeed slam a specific news report speaks to one of two possibilities: 1) The White House has no idea how this whole thing works; or 2) It cares not a whit about attempting to turn a neutral organization of long standing into a political tool. In his comments, Mason mentioned a “learning curve for the White House to figure out our role, but we have made very clear what our role is.”
Moments after Mason made his comments, he was apprised that Twitter had lit up with chatter about his revelations. He declined to deliver further details on these White House requests. A correspondent for Reuters, Mason has served as WHCA president during the most trying of times. Though he noted at the meeting that access at the Trump White House was good in the early months, the rhetoric coming from the president was problematic. Of late, he cited a “setback” on access as well, a reference to the restrictive rules at White House press briefings.
Throughout his tenure as president, Mason has spoken in calm and measured tones even in the face of outrageous and often misleading behavior by the White House officials he was covering. The notion that, somehow, he would have cooperated in a scheme to slam his peers drills at the strategic incompetence of the White House communications apparatus.
In any event, the Trump folks have a penchant for awkward and boundary-bending requests for news-pushback cooperation: Back in February, The Washington Post reported that the White House had attempted to enlist intelligence officials to discredit media reports about ties between Trump allies and Russia.
On another topic, Mason was asked by an audience member about requests from news consumers that news outlets simply turn on their cameras at briefings in defiance of the White House’s rules against broadcasting proceedings. Mason responded: “Those types of decisions are going to have to be made by news organizations. It is our job to represent the journalists in this room but we do not make decisions for the news organizations that you work for. And if television networks decide to turn on the cameras, that’s their decision. If you as an individual journalist decide to pull up your iPhone and record, that is your decision.”