Standing at the very back of the James S. Brady Room, videographer Patrick Gavin is filming himself at the daily White House press briefing. His shots have a certain repeat quality to them: He raises his hand to ask a question, then lowers it. Raises it again and lowers it. Raises it, lowers it. And again. Press secretary Josh Earnest never calls on him.
Finally the session winds down. “Thank you everybody,” Earnest says, closing his briefing book and slipping out of the room.
Another day, another rebuff: It’s routine for Gavin, a former Politico reporter who now is an independent filmmaker chronicling his so-far-unsuccessful bid to score an interview with President Obama. His YouTube videos — he has vowed to make 500 — repeatedly refer to the questions he might ask if the White House ever stops ignoring him.
But maybe the more pertinent question is: How does a guy with no official media affiliation get into the White House’s press room in the first place?
Say “White House press corps” to most Americans, and they’ll think: the major television networks and national newspapers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times. Maybe the Associated Press and Reuters wire services. You know, the major media.
But every day, on the fringes of the 49-seat White House briefing room, another class of reporters shares elbow room — and equal access — with the big guns of journalism.
On any given day, Gavin’s colleagues in this group may include a retired college professor, a courtly Indian gentleman whose newspaper doesn’t actually exist at the moment, a 71-year-old freelancer, an Uber driver, a woman in an ever-present down vest who files reports on Twitter and Facebook, and a man who likes to tweet out photos of himself posing in the briefing room. One day in January, there was also a woman who slowly leafed through a book of poetry.
Meet the “other” White House press corps.
Reporting from the White House is a prestigious assignment, the pinnacle of many a mainstream journalist’s career. But access to the heart of the presidential news operation isn’t just for the famous of face or the prominent of publication. This is America, remember.
“We take seriously our responsibility to work with journalists and outlets of all stripes,” says White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
And some of those stripes are decidedly, well, unusual. After all, in this day and age, “everyone who has a Twitter site can call himself a journalist,” says CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller, who has been on the White House beat since 1992. “Everyone can have a blog.” Which qualifies a whole lot of citizen journalists to apply for — and gain — entree to the White House.
People such as Gavin, who says that all he needs to do to get a day pass into the briefings is submit his date of birth and Social Security number and say that he makes videos for YouTube. (Access to the executive mansion is via either a coveted “hard pass” — a renewable two-year permit — or a day pass, which must be applied for each time you want in.)
“There’s a part of me that’s surprised that I’m let in,” says Gavin.
Ditto for Randy Foreman, 39, an unpaid reporter for the Australian website News Blaze — who works as an Uber driver at night. He was blocked from getting a Senate pass, but the White House was entirely welcoming. “No matter how small you are,” he says, “you’re treated like the New York Times.”
This openness to the offbeat and the questionably self-employed actually predates the advent of Twitter or even the Internet. The White House press corps boasts a long history of colorful characters and hangers-on. Les Kinsolving, a reporter for the far-right World Net Daily, was a familiar White House gadfly from the days of the Nixon administration on. He went down in press corps history in 2011 by posing a question that somehow linked bestiality to homosexuality. (Don’t ask.)
But Kinsolving, who left the White House beat in 2013 (in his late 80s), was a gentle lamb compared with Naomi Nover, who inherited her journalist husband’s access — based on his self-founded Nover News Service — after his death in 1973, even though many considered her a pretend reporter who never wrote a word. Nover was apparently in the habit of assaulting other journalists with her large purse or her umbrella whenever they did something to annoy her. But not one press secretary in five administrations had the heart to revoke her hard pass. She died in 1995 at 84 after collapsing while trying to renew her Senate pass.
These days, arguably the most colorful member of the “other” White House press corps is Jon-Christopher Bua, a heavyset man with an air of confidence who possesses a sought-after hard pass that’s registered through Euronews, a pan-European television news channel. His association with that network, however, appears to be peripheral at best. Euronews’s editor in chief, Peter Barabas, said via email that Bua is “an occasional contributor and analyst for Euronews, by request. He is not an employee.”
Most of Bua’s work seems to consist of unpaid commentaries for Huffington Post Europe and a site called News2Share.com. Both also say that he is a contributor, not an employee.
Nonetheless, Bua, who didn’t respond to requests for an interview, is at the White House many times a month, tweeting numerous selfies from the scene. Before one January briefing, he posted a photo of himself in the room with the message, “At @PressSec 12:30 Briefing Today. At Capitol Statuary Hall for SOTU Reax Tomorrow.”
Much of his activity seems to focus more on placing himself at the center of history — running through New Hampshire to cover the primary, hobnobbing with minor movie stars at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — than on writing articles.
Having no assigned seat — seating, or lack thereof, is the great divide between the “other” press corps and the mainstream reporters — he hovers in the aisles and grabs an empty spot once the briefing begins. Often, it’s the third-row seat reserved for American Urban Radio Networks. This can sometimes be annoying to that group’s correspondent, April Ryan, but she still welcomes the unconventional reporters.
“It’s called freedom of the press,” she says.
In this era of live-streaming, why bother going to the briefing at all?
Because “this is the cathedral of American journalism,” says Randy Foreman, the Uber driver, still awestruck after more than a year of attending the sessions.
Filmmaker Gavin likewise considers the briefing a “pretty prestigious thing,” and shows up at least once a week.
Still, on slow news days, the last three rows of the seven rows of seats can often be sparsely populated. That’s why the White House’s open-door policy is so vital, says Gavin. “If the motley crew of reporters, such as myself, who get day passes and go to the White House once in a while weren’t there, that room would be even more empty,” he opines in one of his videos, cutting to a shot of a half-empty room. “And what an awful image that would be for this country.”
So it turns out we really need those intrepid “others” who fill the rest of the room.
That would be people like freelancer Connie Lawn, who has been covering the beat for 48 years. Most recently, she writes a column for the Huffington Post, a mix of personal essays and stories about world events. Author of a book about White House radio broadcasts, the 71-year-old, who is much-loved in the briefing room, is fighting an advanced form of Parkinson’s disease and finds it harder to attend, showing up about once a week. When she can’t make it, she feels cut off. The White House press corps, she says, “is my family.”
Another indefatigable member is Raghubir Goyal of the India Globe, which he says will reappear in a new website “any day.” Goyal has been slipping into (someone else’s) third-row seats since the Carter administration and is famous for asking questions about India, Pakistan and terrorism. People tell him that when he gets a chance to ask a question, he should “go with the flow,” but “I can’t go with the flow!” he says. During the George W. Bush administration, his name became a verb: the press secretary would “Goyal” a press conference by calling on the Indian to divert attention from more uncomfortable issues.
Kristina Anderson, founder of the website AWPS News, tweets and posts on Facebook about everything from defense to climate change to politics and infrastructure. During one briefing, sitting in the last row, she alternately scribbled down detailed notes and tweeted out photos of Earnest.
And there’s Martha Kumar, a retired Towson University historian who has chronicled the White House press from the inside since 1975, in books — she’s the author of “Managing the President’s Message: The White House Communications Operation” — and on her nonprofit website, the White House Transition Project.
How is it that she qualifies for a hard pass? “I don’t want to get into that,” she says.
Ah. So some mysteries remain. We may never know exactly how some people get in to cover the White House. But we know exactly why they want to.
“People want to get close to history,” says American Urban Radio Networks’ Ryan. “Who are we to begrudge them?”
Bruno is a freelance writer. Staff writer Paul Farhi contributed to this article.