To the surprise of no one, the White House recently moved to purge reporters by taking away or restricting their daily press passes to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Under the new rules unveiled by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, journalists will be required to work at the White House for 90 out of 180 days in order to hold “hard passes,” which allow easy access to the building for reporters who regularly cover the administration. But that 180 days includes weekends, so if reporters aren’t at the White House on most workdays, their pass gets rescinded. In other words, Sanders and the White House get to become the Deciders on who gets access to the White House. It’s “the hallmark of authoritarianism,” complained Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. And he’s right.
But the response from news outlets and press associations has mostly been crickets, as they continue to display hallmark timidity in dealing with this bullying administration. Sadly, the dramatic purge is just the latest radical move by a White House that has severely restricted press access to official events. It all constitutes a historic, incremental effort by the Trump administration to lock out the news media—and, by extension, the public—from the government’s official duties and business.
The move comes as the White House approaches nearly 50 straight days without hosting a press briefing. (Until Donald Trump, press briefings were held daily.) Sanders’ no-show routine at the press briefings has become so absurd that White House reporters now often dash out onto the grounds when she’s giving a live interview to Fox News on the White House lawn. When she’s done with her friendly Fox News Q&A, reporters pepper her with queries on her way back into the White House. It’s a complete charade and makes a mockery out of the idea of democratic transparency.
So if the daily briefings are essentially dead, access to officials has been dramatically restricted, and now press credentials are being revoked, the question becomes: Is it time for news organizations to pull back their White House teams of journalists and use those resources more wisely from different locations? Is it time to acknowledge the folly of trying to produce actual journalism inside a White House filled with chronically dishonest people who view the press as the “enemy of the people,” and who do everything possible to restrict access? Basically, is it time to disband the White House press corps?
Think about it: What’s the true value of having some of your most experienced journalists decamped inside the Trump White House where briefings don’t exist, most advisers don’t return reporters’ calls, and when they do, they just lie constantly? Even reporters working there concede it’s nearly impossible to get a straight answer from anybody. “Sometimes you’re dealing with people, where you’re just like, ‘ugh.’ You have to build relationships with people who lie ninety-eight percent of the time,” New York Times White House reporter Katie Rogers told NPR last year, as she discussed the challenges of covering the Trump administration.
Early on there was some worthy White House reporting about the dynamics of the bizarre and dysfunctional culture instituted by Trump. But by now, we all know the staff is in turmoil. We all know Trump doesn’t listen to briefings and rejects most advice. We all know aides are sometimes beside themselves dealing with an incoherent commander in chief. That narrative from inside the White House has been covered regularly for two years. We get it. What’s being delivered now seems increasingly empty. I looked at the last few “White House Memo” installments from the New York Times, which are written by the paper’s White House reporters and are supposed to be snapshots from inside Trump’s inner circle. But none of the articles actually include any quotes from people who currently work inside the White House.
The question soon becomes, now what? And is it really worth it to continue a tradition just for tradition’s sake, especially if Trump’s team has gleefully blown up the media rules? In that case, why shouldn’t the press just pack up and leave and report administration news from elsewhere? Journalistically, what’s left for the White House press corps to do often resembles a joke. The so-called White House sprays, where reporters are marched into a room and encouraged to shout questions at Trump, who then lies about everything, are relatively pointless. So too, is the ritual of yelling questions at Trump while he stands near a whirling helicopter on the White House grounds. In both cases, Trump simply uses reporters as props so they’ll record his avalanche of lies, and then run those on a televised loop all day.
“Trump’s elimination of briefings and other changes have devalued White House coverage,” concedes the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who recently had his longstanding White House press pass taken away. At the onset of the Trump presidency, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen suggested news outlets send their interns to cover the Trump White House press briefings since the events weren’t serious endeavors and shouldn’t occupy the time of experienced pros (i.e. the real stories would be found elsewhere). Two years into this mess, is it time to send the interns to cover the White House, period?
I certainly understand the eyes-and-ears argument for keeping reporters inside the White House, even a completely uncooperative one like Trump’s. “Most White House reporters will tell you just being there gives them a greater view and perspective of what’s going on with the President and his staff. There are things you can’t see or understand just by watching TV and monitoring the President’s Twitter feed,” former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart recently wrote. “It’s about reporters being able to represent the American people in a thorough way on the White House grounds.” But at one point does regurgitating Trump lies from on the grounds of the White House no longer become a worthwhile endeavor? Sure, it produces content. But it’s not really journalism.
I’d note that there’s still good Trump administration reporting happening in Washington, but most often, it’s just not coming from the White House. For instance, last week the Post broke an important and troubling news story about how Trump’s team had pressured Homeland Security officials to arrest thousands of parents and children in an operation against migrants in 10 major American cities. Where did that story come from? From “seven current and former Department of Homeland Security officials.”
In terms of the White House press corps, what’s happening now isn’t working. So why aren’t news outlets making drastic adjustments to White House coverage in the face of radical White House behavior?