In a statement issued on Monday, attorney Ted Boutrous, who specializes in First Amendment cases, signaled that he’d contacted the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) regarding Karem’s outsider status. The WHCA is a nonprofit with a board of journalists who decide who gets a seat in the briefing room, as well as other choice access points on the White House beat.
It was the WHCA that presided over the spreading-out of journalists in the briefing room. In normal times — that is, before then-Press Secretary Sarah Sanders stopped doing briefings in March of 2019 — the seats and the aisles were filled with reporters. After the dangers of coronavirus became manifest, the WHCA in March cut back seat assignments, first to 25 news outlets, then to 14.
“We understand the need to limit attendees to ensure health and safety, but a fair, neutral, nondiscriminatory process is essential. We have requested that @whca give @BrianKarem and similarly-situated reporters fair access to the rotation for press conferences,” said Boutrous on Twitter.
That move followed a classic Washington access drama that played out last week on cable news in Trump’s interminable coronavirus briefings. Chanel Rion, a reporter from the pro-Trump TV news outlet One America News Network (OANN), appeared in the back of the briefing room on three evenings, in apparent violation of WHCA protocol. According to the WHCA, Rion had shown up on days that she was not scheduled to attend. In response, OANN was stripped of its normal seat rotation and relieved of its workstation in the White House basement.
Responding to reports of Rion’s rogue appearances, OANN pulled out a trump card: It was attending these sessions, it claimed, at the invitation of now-former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. It was an unsurprising development, considering that Grisham’s own sycophancy toward the president echoes the boot-licking tone on OANN’s programming.
The preferential treatment accorded to OANN by Grisham struck Boutrous as a betrayal of the First Amendment. In a letter last Friday to Grisham, Boutrous wrote, in part, “Prohibiting Mr. Karem and similarly situated reporters from accessing the briefing room, while allowing a favored reporter to attend and ask questions in violation of the agreement, is textbook content discrimination.” If Grisham refused access to Karem, the letter said, “we will have no choice but to raise this with the district court and seek an order of contempt for your unconstitutional conduct.”
Shortly after that letter was sent, Trump & Co. appeared in the briefing room for their daily session. Rion was not in attendance. Karem tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he had seen Rion at the White House that day and learned that she intended to appear again at the briefing, but for some reason she turned back. “Correlation is not necessarily causation. But she didn’t attend after she first was planning to do so,” notes Karem.
The Trump White House has attempted to revoke and suspend White House access credentials in the cases of CNN’s Jim Acosta and Karem, respectively. In both cases, Boutrous has headed successful court challenges to overturn those muzzling attempts. So his request to Grisham stirred some weekend activity at the Justice Department, which argued in a Sunday letter that providing “special press access to a particular network or reporter” doesn’t run afoul of First Amendment protections. In mounting the government’s defense, Justice Department attorney Ashley Cheung admitted that Grisham had “personally invited” OANN as a “guest” to the briefings.
The letter also acknowledged the WHCA’s powerful role on the grounds of the White House: “Based on our understanding from the White House Press Office, although the Press Briefing Room is White House property, a practice has developed under which the White House Correspondents’ Association (‘WHCA’) is permitted to determine seating in the Press Briefing Room.” As this blog has explained before, the WHCA plays no role in deciding upon and issuing the hard passes that reporters use to enter the grounds; those are the province of the White House and the Secret Service.
Founded in 1914, the WHCA had a gate-keeping function even in its infancy, as it labored to make sure that only actual reporters attended sessions with President Woodrow Wilson. “In those days, the people thrown out were known as tipsters, who wanted to use the off the record comments by Wilson to make a killing in the stock market,” notes National Journal White House correspondent George Condon, an expert on Washington media history.
Seating wasn’t an issue in the briefing room before the Reagan years; that’s because there were no seats in there, according to Condon. “[R]eporters just stood around, leaned on walls or, if lucky, got a spot to sit on the couch in the room,” notes Condon in an email. White House officials, says Condon, had no appetite for the administrative hassle of assigning seats in the room, so that job eventually fell to the WHCA. Condon, who served as WHCA president from 1993 to 1994, doesn’t recall a lot of shenanigans around the seating arrangement. “Nobody even dreamed that you would give a seat to a small outlet just because they were on your side politically,” he writes.
Nobody dreamed, either, that the briefing room would have to leave three-quarters of its seats empty to battle the coronavirus. Boutrous has asked the WHCA for a clarification of the standards that it uses to allot seats. As of Wednesday noon, Boutrous told the Erik Wemple Blog he was in discussions with the WHCA. Karem tells us, “The WHCA has given me a variety of reasons why they cannot give me a seat or put me in the pool. … The process needs to be as fair and transparent as we demand the White House to be in their dealings with the free press.”
“There has always been a strong logic to the assignments,” says Condon. “The organizations that spend the money to be there every day and do the travel and participate in the pools always take precedence over the smaller outfits with less commitment or less reach.”
On the question of reach, Karem’s argument just got a bit less compelling: Playboy announced last month that it was dropping its print edition. “If OAN can be in there, so should I,” says Karem.
Toward that end, Boutrous on Wednesday hit back at the administration. Stop the nonsense about Rion entering the room as a “guest,” Boutrous exhorted: “Even if the Press Secretary on occasion invites ‘guests’ to the Briefing Room, the OAN reporter was not invited merely to observe as the Press Secretary’s aides, family, or friends might,” wrote Boutrous. “Instead, that correspondent was welcomed to actively participate in the briefing as a reporter and was given the opportunity to ask questions of the President and other officials.”
We’d go one step further: Rion wasn’t so much welcomed as planted in the proceedings, the better to tee up the president’s talking points. There may be drawbacks in allowing a clubby set of Beltway journalists to manage seat rotations and the like, but they look puny compared to the alternative: letting anyone associated with Trump call the shots.
Read more from Erik Wemple: