The most important thing to understand about White House reporting is that the entire system is set up to benefit establishment and corporate media outlets. Contrary to popular belief, whichever administration is in the White House plays a relatively small role in determining press access. They determine who gets a press pass, but most other decisions relating to coverage are outsourced to the White House Correspondents Association.
The WHCA creates the seating chart in the briefing room, determining who is most likely to be called on by a press secretary. They place correspondents from the large broadcast and cable networks in the front rows. Only a couple of conservative outlets are given seats at all, and they are plopped in the back. Everyone else has to stand in the aisles, throw some elbows to retain some personal space, and pray they get called on. The Daily Caller just recently gained a seat in the briefing room; it did not have one when I covered the White House. The Spectator does not have one either.
To get a good space in an aisle during the Trump administration, you had to arrive about an hour before the briefing to save your spot, while the reporters with seats can stroll in after the two-minute warning. The conservative and independent outlets forced into the aisles are placed at a huge disadvantage because they are out of the press secretary’s line of sight. If you’ve ever watched a press briefing and felt like everyone was asking the same questions, it’s because the corporate media drones are usually the only ones getting any.
The WHCA revamped its seating chart in February 2022, the first time it had done this in about five years. The first three rows are occupied by the following outlets: NBC News, Fox News, CBS News, the Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News Radio, Bloomberg, NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, Politico, AP Radio and PBS Radio, McClatchy, the foreign pool, AFP, Los Angeles Times, and ABC News Radio. Of the 49 seats in the briefing room, just nine are occupied by right-leaning news outlets. If you exclude Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and Fox Radio, then you’re down to six. Of those six, five are seated in the back rows.
The WHCA’s protection of certain outlets extends to its public statements and, unofficially, the way members selectively come to each other’s defense. The WHCA filed an amicus brief when the Trump administration revoked Jim Acosta’s (of CNN) hard pass, released a statement defending CNN’s Kaitlan Collins when she was barred from an event, and filed another amicus brief to challenge the revocation of Brian Karem’s hard pass.
However, the WHCA voted to remove conservative One America News Network (OANN) from the briefing room rotation for not abiding by its contrived social distancing guidelines, even though OANN’s correspondent had been personally invited to be in the briefing room by the Trump administration.
All of the WHCA reporters would jump on their social media accounts to defend one another when Trump was even slightly sarcastic in response to one of their questions. When a reporter from a conservative outlet even got a question, the rest of the press corps would complain. Much like the woke college kids who believed conservatives shouldn’t be allowed to speak on campus, the WHCA didn’t believe conservatives should get to ask questions in the briefing room.
Acosta’s ‘Softball’ Questions Accusation
Acosta accused my colleague at the time, Saagar Enjeti, of asking softball questions during a joint presser between Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Saagar asked Bolsonaro, “A number of Democrats who are running to replace the president have embraced socialist ideas. … If a candidate who embraced socialism were to replace the president, how would it affect your relations with the United States?”
It was a perfectly newsy question considering Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist, was polling quite well at the time, and that socialism is accused of destroying Brazil’s economy. Acosta disagreed and, in his criticism of Enjeti, even incorrectly claimed that the question was directed to Trump, not Bolsonaro.
Acosta claimed the question “was asked in a way that really teed it up like a game of tee ball here in the Rose Garden. The president was just sort of served up a softball there when he was asked whether or not the Democrats are advancing a lot of socialist ideas.”
Acosta had previously whined that Trump might call on conservative outlets who ask “softballs.” His consternation over conservative colleagues was especially disgusting because none other than Fox News came to his defense when Trump tried to pull his hard pass.
WHCA Takes Care of Its Friends
Back in 2017, reporters fretted after Press Secretary Sean Spicer called on the New York Post, LifeZette, and Breitbart during briefings. They were livid when The Daily Caller’s Kaitlan Collins, whom they would later champion as their hero when she moved to CNN, got a question at a Trump press conference.
In addition to taking care of its preferred outlets, the WHCA also does favors for its personal friends. CNN contributor April Ryan was first given a permanent seat in the briefing room when she covered the White House for the American Urban Radio Networks, where she worked for more than two decades. In 2020, Ryan moved to TheGrio, a website that covers African-American issues and is owned by Allen Media Group. Even though it usually takes media outlets years to get an assigned briefing room seat, the WHCA quickly made sure Ryan’s seat with the American Urban Radio Networks was reassigned to TheGrio. It’s also worth pointing out that, until 2016, TheGrio was launched and owned by NBC.
Keeping Conservatives in the Back
Television correspondents and wire services — Reuters, the Associated Press, and the like — are also given priority when it comes to other White House events. Whenever we are set to cover a president’s arrival or departure, or an event in the Rose Garden or East Room, we have to line up in a predetermined order.
Let’s use an example. Imagine Trump was leaving the White House to fly to a rally in Iowa. Typically, before he boarded Marine One, he would stop and answer questions from the press gaggle.
That gaggle is not assembled randomly. Photographers, cameras, and sound are sent out first to set up their equipment. Then, members of the rotating press pool head out. Next up, WHCA members are allowed to line up 30 minutes prior to the departure. Correspondents for larger outlets game the system by sending out their producers or junior reporters to hold their spots in line, an advantage those of us operating solo don’t have. Television correspondents also have the benefit of having their cameramen, who are already set up, holding a place for them at the front of the rope. By the time the rest of us reporters could get out to the gathering location, we were two to three rows back in the crowd and effectively frozen out of getting any questions.
I had to fight a little dirty to make sure I could get a decent spot in the gaggle. I always wore flats or sneakers on arrival or departure days so I could run ahead of other reporters once our line was let through. If a photographer was set up on a ladder, I’d sneak behind him and stand on the first rung so I could be taller than the people in front of me. Sometimes, being small was an advantage because I could maneuver my way closer to the front of the gaggle with some strategically placed elbows.
The system is similar for events in the Rose Garden. A certain number of establishment outlets get assigned seats in the back two rows, while the television correspondents get the prime standing space. Everyone else has to crowd around the back and sides of the garden. There were many times I nearly ended up face down in the thorny rose bushes after being pushed out of the way by a photographer or ruined a good pair of heels by sinking into the grass on a dewy day.
The WHCA’s rules are self-reinforcing, so the system is never challenged. It doesn’t make sense for reporters from smaller outlets to be at the White House every day because they don’t have a set working space or an assigned seat in the briefing room, and they can’t count on getting decent positioning at other events. Their time is usually better spent working from an office. However, in order to get more access, the WHCA requires you to have a physical presence at the White House as often as possible. It’s like an abusive relationship. You have to accept being treated like dirt for years and allow your work product to suffer with the vague hope that, one day, the WHCA will let you into its club.
This is an adapted excerpt from “The Snowflakes’ Revolt: How Woke Millennials Hijacked American Media” (Bombardier Books, March 21).