When Salon reporter Brian Karem attended the Medal of Honor ceremony that President Biden presided over Tuesday in the East Room of the White House, he hadn’t been in that room in more than a year.
Access to the East Room has become a point of contention between some reporters and White House officials. Last week Karem sent a letter to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre regarding the ability of reporters on the White House campus to attend certain events the president headlines. “The current method of allowing a limited number of reporters into these events is not only restrictive and antithetical to the concept of a free press, but it has been done without any transparent process into how reporters are selected to cover these events,” reads the letter, which was written by Karem and signed by more than 70 journalists, including former ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson.
The restrictions at issue in this case — which originated in the Biden White House, according to three correspondents — aren’t a headline-making monstrosity. They’re a quiet, bureaucratic piece of statecraft that affects an indeterminate number of media outlets. But who is blocked today may be different from who is blocked tomorrow — and since access curbs tend to stick around, it’s a worthwhile fight.
White House access for journalists is a tiered and complicated affair: The Secret Service and White House officials issue security credentials — known as “hard passes” — for press-corps regulars to enter the grounds (“day passes” are available for reporters who only occasionally go to the White House). Those passes, however, don’t guarantee holders entry into every presidential event. The nonprofit White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), whose mission includes ensuring “robust coverage of the … presidency,” coordinates “pool” coverage — that is, reporting by a small squadron of journalists — for presidential appearances in spaces where the entire White House press corps can’t fit. Frequent locations of pool coverage include the Oval Office and the Roosevelt Room.
Karem is focused on White House events in spaces where all journalists with passes have traditionally been allowed to pile in. Those include the East Room, the State Dining Room, the Cross Room Hall and the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (which has been reconfigured for virtual events and now holds fewer people than in years past). These days, according to White House reporters, Biden officials routinely ask journalists to register to attend presidential appearances in such spaces. White House staff review the requests and deny some. A White House official notes that it has sought to “accommodate as many journalists as possible in a number of different spaces under constantly changing COVID conditions — challenges unlike any other Administration has faced.”
When the events feature a large number of invited guests, says the official, there isn’t room to accommodate every journalist who wishes to attend.
Steven Nelson, a White House correspondent for the New York Post, says he was denied access to registration-required events from November until Friday, when his attendance at an abortion-policy event with the president got the green light — one day after Karem’s letter was sent. One caveat: The New York Post participates in a rotating pool with about 30 other outlets and occasionally gets into events through that mechanism.
“Frankly, that seems pretty inexcusable to me,” says Nelson, who recruited other journalists to sign the letter. “I was surprised at the number of reporters who thanked me and expressed indignation at what’s going on. It seems a lot of people are affected.”
Affected, that is, by a policy they don’t know much about. Both Karem and Nelson say there’s no transparency into decisions on who’s welcome and who’s not. Karem says he’s been denied entry to all but a “mere handful” of the large presidential events on the White House campus since Biden’s inauguration. Like Nelson, Karem has gotten more favorable responses from the White House since sending the letter.
Contesting access at the White House has become something of a side gig for Karem, who’s been on the presidential beat since the Reagan administration and roared into the national spotlight in recent years by shouting down Donald Trump’s press secretaries. After a boisterous encounter with Trumpite Sebastian Gorka at a Rose Garden event in 2019, the White House suspended Karem’s hard pass; he went to court and secured its restoration. In September 2020, he asked Trump if he’d commit to a peaceful transfer of power. “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” the then-president responded.
In any administration, journalists have to double as access lobbyists at the White House. The Obama administration, for instance, routinely barred news photographers from events, only to later release photographs by the official White House photographer. Trump provided White House press with endless opportunities to quiz him on the day’s issues, though his underlings targeted certain reporters for exclusion, including Karem and CNN’s Jim Acosta and Kaitlan Collins.
“You had Donald Trump, who had nothing to say and said it all the time. And you have Biden, who has something to say and he rarely says it,” says Karem, who stresses that access issues affect the entire White House press corps.
Asked about the letter at Tuesday’s briefing, Jean-Pierre said, “We’re coming into a different place of covid — things are starting to open up, we’re even doing tours here. ...We understand, we want to be accessible, we want the president, at his events, to be accessible and we are working to that.” She called the matter “a priority of ours.”
The letter to Jean-Pierre acknowledges that social-distancing imperatives “played a role at first,” but the attendance restrictions have outlived the public-health rules. Nelson says that attendance-denial notices from the White House formerly cited covid restrictions but no longer do so. Nowadays, he says, they merely cite space considerations. The White House official says that “there are a lot of considerations — space considerations, covid considerations, sometimes people don’t meet deadlines.”
Although the WHCA commonly presses officials on access problems, the letter doesn’t bear the organization’s imprimatur. WHCA President Steven Portnoy, however, signed it. “We have pressed the point repeatedly privately, and I was happy to co-sign Brian’s letter,” says Portnoy.
Don’t be surprised if the attendance-request system has a long lifespan, considering that wisdom on limiting press access gets handed down from one administration to the next. “We’re worried about the precedent for the future,” says Nelson. “In the next administration, it could be The Washington Post that finds itself essentially blacklisted from presidential events.”