The White House press corps is culling its ranks, separating who’s officially in the club and who isn’t.
Officially in: Journalists who’ve already been approved by a committee that hands out congressional press credentials.
The “club,” in this case, is the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), the organization that has long represented journalists in negotiations with the White House over access to the president and information about him. The group is best known for its annual dinner, a celebrity-studded affair that’s lost luster under the Trump administration.
In a vote by its members last week, the WHCA decided to tighten up its membership rules, laying down more specific criteria for who can claim full membership.
Bottom line: Reporters and news organization that don’t qualify for a congressional press credential don’t qualify for full-fledged status in the WHCA.
The arcane change in the group’s bylaws doesn’t affect who can cover the White House itself. Passes to White House briefings are handed out by the White House press staff, and almost anyone with a plausible connection to journalism tends to qualify. Since President Trump took office, for example, the staff has granted temporary passes to representatives of Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy-minded, pro-Trump blog.
But not being a WHCA member could have some practical consequences nevertheless.
WHCA members tend to get priority for “pool” duty — that is, covering the president when he travels with a limited group — since the organization controls the rotation of pool reporters. (Pool reporters provide eyewitness details that are shared with reporters at large for incorporation into their news stories.)
While anyone can apply for pool duty, nonmembers rarely get assigned. Jeff Mason, the WHCA’s outgoing president, acknowledged in an interview that accreditation is “taken into account” when the WHCA makes pool assignments.
By applying the congressional accrediting criteria, “we are using the gold standard” to determine membership, Mason said.
Members are also the only ones eligible to vote for the WHCA’s leadership. The membership-rule change will thus restrict who determines control of the organization’s board.
The changes drew objections from a faction of reporters from Breitbart, NewsMax and the Daily Signal — all conservative news outlets — and from liberal commentator Bill Press when they were first proposed.
In a letter sent to members, they said the vote was being rushed. “An unintended consequence of this proposed rules change could be undermining the WHCA board’s public credibility when fighting for access and transparency if the WHCA has arguably excluded some outlets from full membership,” this faction wrote.
The argument failed to persuade members, who voted for the bylaw changes.
The change will leave several news organizations that cover the White House ineligible for full WHCA membership. For example, Breitbart, the site previously headed by now-White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon, has been unsuccessful in gaining congressional accreditation. Mother Jones, a liberal-oriented publication known for its investigative reporting, doesn’t have a regular congressional correspondent (Mother Jones declined to comment; Breitbart did not respond to requests for comment).
The vote also excludes the likes of the Daily Signal, a news site founded by the conservative Heritage Foundation. The Signal can’t qualify for congressional accreditation because of a rule barring organizations owned by entities that “engage, directly or indirectly, in any lobbying or other activity intended to influence any matter before Congress.”
In an interview, the Signal’s editor, Rob Bluey, said the WHCA “should be fighting for journalists, not making it more difficult for veteran reporters to have a voice in the decision-making process.” He added, “We’re disappointed by the decision, but it won’t stop the Daily Signal from covering the White House with truthful, fair and accurate reporting.”