Jim Acosta, the fiery CNN White House correspondent, went on air in December and apprised viewers that he’d received an access threat from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. At issue was his presence in a “pool spray” of media folks who were attending a presidential bill signing. “She warned me that if I asked the president a question at this pool spray, as we call them, that she could not promise that I would be allowed into a pool spray again,” said Acosta, who termed the episode “a direct threat coming from the press secretary to me, warning me not to ask a question and, of course, I went ahead and asked the question anyway and the president did not respond.”
That is some screwed-up stuff. So the Erik Wemple Blog asked the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) for its take on the situation, and this statement came forth from President Margaret Talev: “It is longstanding practice for reporters to ask questions of the president during events like the one today, and it is at the president’s discretion to decide whether and how to answer those questions. It is up to news organizations to determine which journalists they assign to represent them in the pool.”
The statement made the point that journalists decide who covers the president, and how they do so. Though it was a touch diplomatic for some:
In an interview last week, Talev spoke about the role of the WHCA in such matters. “I think everybody was certainly alarmed when they first heard that,” said Talev, senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg, “but our job is to find out what’s going on before we react and we wanted to get a real sense of whether there was actually a threat to restrict access.” According to Talev, Sanders gave “assurances” that there would be no such restriction.
“[We] have spoken and continue to speak out on our right to freely ask questions of the president, but there haven’t been any steps to restrict that. I think that if there had been, you would have seen a much different reaction,” said Talev, who didn’t take issue with Acosta’s version of events.
Such are the nuts-and-bolts issues that the WHCA has been tackling for decades. The association launched in 1914 amid squabbles with President Woodrow Wilson over his news-conference policy. “Certain evening newspapers,” griped the president, were publishing quotes that he’d deemed off the record. More than a century of fighting for access to all manner of presidential events — bill signings, fundraisers and so on — ensued.
And then came President Trump, along with press secretary Sean Spicer. On his first day in the briefing room, Spicer lambasted the assembled media for allegedly misreporting inauguration crowds — an attack based on well-exposed falsehoods — and then left the lectern without taking questions. In one appearance, Spicer combined access problems with something new: an official White House policy of media hostility on a level with no parallel in modern memory.
All year long the WHCA has labored to handle the double threat. As the president has harangued about “fake news” and otherwise riffed about de-licensing media organizations, the WHCA found working-level problems — like the decision, under Spicer’s time as press secretary, to ban cameras from a series of press briefings. “The WHCA’s position on this issue is clear: we believe strongly that Americans should be able to watch and listen to senior government officials face questions from an independent news media, in keeping with the principles of the First Amendment and the need for transparency at the highest levels of government,” noted then-WHCA President Jeff Mason in a June statement.
Since then, Spicer has left the White House; Sanders has succeeded him, tamping down the tension in the room; and access problems have eased. The president’s hostility toward the media has not:
So how does the WHCA break it all down? Here’s a list of pluses and minuses that Talev included in her New Year’s memo, which was circulated Tuesday evening.
After the Erik Wemple Blog tweeted that inventory, dissenters converged.
There is indeed a problem of tonality here. “Areas for improvement” is a term commonly used in educational or employment settings, in which the person being evaluated presumably has the will to make adjustments. Such is not the situation here: Trump publicly denigrates the media as a matter of core political strategy. The harmful and baseless slams on the Fourth Estate started early in his presidential campaign and haven’t abated.
In her interview with this blog, Talev was careful to note that the WHCA isn’t happy with the White House, even though some of the access problems of the Spicer months have gone away. “The ongoing public undercutting and assault of the free press is really problematic,” she said. “It’s troubling to me as a journalist and troubling to me as an American, but it’s something we have to do our jobs in the face of for now. … It’s very troubling to have the most powerful figure in the U.S. or in the world telling people that they can’t trust facts. Nothing works if you can’t trust facts. Society doesn’t work if you can’t trust facts.”
That said, the WHCA won’t be putting out a statement every time the president lashes out against the media. Most of the rants, argues Talev, are “rhetoric” and not part of some policy initiative. “What our membership — individually and collectively — has embraced is the idea that doing your job and doing your job proudly and well is the most important thing you can do,” said Talev. “What do you get by putting out a statement?”