While backing out of what was shaping up to be a titanic legal fight over the First Amendment, the administration never backed off the notion — expressed in a Justice Department brief — that the president has “broad discretion to regulate access to the White House for journalists.” Rather, President Trump seemed to double down on this sweeping assertion, announcing through his press secretary new rules of decorum for reporters on the White House beat.
We’ll leave it to others to evaluate Trump’s qualifications to be the nation’s protocol officer in chief; the plain fact is that he isn’t going to make America great again by making reporters more polite. They best serve the public when they are persistent.
We bring a unique perspective to this as two college friends who sometimes found our relationship strained from working on opposite sides of the adversarial relationship that governs the White House briefing room. But our friendship survived, just as any administration should be able to survive the questions from an impertinent press.
Both of us consider the White House sacred ground, not because of any individual who temporarily resides there but because of the people who really own the place. Their questions, concerns and needs should resound through its corridors every day.
We acknowledge that the people who work there don’t always live up to that lofty mandate: White House press secretaries have an obligation to give the American public information, but they sometimes serve it with some spin. Reporters have an obligation to ferret out facts, but they sometimes let ego and attitude get in the way.
Both, however, are best able to do their jobs if neither is boss of the other and each feels free to call out the other, without reporters fearing some sort of Kafkaesque disciplinary action.
Limiting press questioning harms the press, the public and, potentially, the president. As President Lyndon B. Johnson’s top aide, George Reedy, wrote in a memoir, “The Twilight of the Presidency,” modern-day presidents are at risk of being trapped in a cocoon of yes men (and, today, yes women). Sometimes reporters’ questions are the only rays of truth-bringing reality that penetrate.
For a better way to handle press access, the White House and its beat reporters need look no further than the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Since the late 1800s, Congress has pointedly butted out of decisions about who gets credentials to cover its proceedings, turning over the duties instead to a Standing Committee of Correspondents.
Now morphed into several committees to meet the needs of broadcasters, photojournalists and periodical reporters (including those for Web-based publications), the group is made up of working reporters who serve on a rotating basis and adjudicate questions — that have become increasingly knotty in the digital age — about who is a reporter. Sometimes their decisions are controversial. But the decisions are made by dispassionate professionals, not by politicians with a potential interest in the outcome.
Why should that not be the same model at the White House? The White House Press Office and its staff should not be in charge of deciding who gets the coveted “hard pass” for daily access to the president, staff and policymakers. Yes, the Secret Service should do a security screening. But decisions about professional bona fides should be in the hands of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents reporters on the beat, although it’s better known for running a once-a-year glitzy dinner.
In trying to ban Acosta, the president may have done the press corps an inadvertent favor. With attention now focused on the dubious system for granting press credentials, the White House and the White House Correspondents’ Association should seize the moment to modernize it. Decisions about White House access should be in the hands of security and media professionals, not political appointees.