Reporters Cool Heels for Biden Press Conference, More White House Access

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After giving his first prime-time address Thursday night, President Joe Biden walked away, ignoring a question called out by a reporter. 

In one sense, turning away is symbolic of the Biden White House’s attitude toward the media. The president has gone longer than any other president in 100 years without holding a formal press conference. 

Barack Obama’s first press conference came 20 days after his inauguration; Donald Trump had one 27 days into his term. George W. Bush waited more than a month–33 days–to hold a press conference, the previous record. 

Even if Biden holds his first formal press conference by the end of March, as press secretary Jen Psaki promised, many members of the White House press corps continue to face significant challenges in accessing the White House amid more strict COVID-19 protocols. 

Brian Karem, a reporter known for clashing with the Trump White House, is in a stir with the Biden White House on the most basic access issue: who gets inside the building. 

“Obviously, this White House wants a small number of reporters covering them,” Karem, who covers the White House for Playboy and The Bulwark, told The Daily Signal. 

Another difference is that at the beginning of the Obama and Trump administrations, the White House briefing room was packed with press, with far more reporters standing than sitting and little elbow room. At the beginning of the Biden administration, attendance for briefings is sparse by mandate. 

Although Biden is more amiable to most journalists, the 46th president has given far less access to them than his predecessor, Trump. On the other hand, despite granting the access, Trump routinely engaged in name calling and shout fests with reporters. 

“The Biden people have been polite, but access is where respect begins,” said Karem, who routinely clashed with Trump and his spokespersons and was a Trump critic on cable news. “I didn’t give a damn if Trump called us names. You have to respect the press enough to give us access.”

Biden’s Historic Milestone

Whatever happens in Biden’s presidency, he already has set one record by going longer than any other president in 100 years in not holding a formal press conference, as ABC News reported

“It’s beyond time for the president to give a news conference to take questions from the news media,” Matthew Hall, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, told The Daily Signal. “Does the public care? It may be an inside baseball thing. But the point is that politicians don’t live in ivory towers.”

The White House Correspondents Association is pushing for a Biden press conference, said Zeke Miller, an Associated Press reporter who is president of the association.

“Press conferences are critical to informing the American people and holding an administration accountable to the public,” Miller said last week in an AP story. “As it has with prior presidents, the WHCA continues to call on President Biden to hold formal press conferences with regularity.”

Last Friday, Psaki defended the level of media access when a reporter noted Biden was 45 days in office without having a single press conference.

“We look forward to holding a full press conference in the coming weeks, before the end of the month, and we’re working on setting a final date for that. And as soon as we do, we will let you all know,” Psaki told reporters, later adding: “But in the meantime, he takes questions multiple times a week and looks forward to continuing to do that. And as soon as we have a press conference set, we’ll let you know.”

In another press briefing, Psaki stressed that Biden had held “about 40 Q&As since he took office.” 

Psaki was referring to “pool sprays,” in which Biden takes a limited number of questions from a small group of reporters. The pool–made up of one reporter and one still photographer representing print media, another reporter and TV camera operator representing TV, and another representing radio–is a group that acts as a proxy for the larger White House press corps. 

Asked whether reporters would have more access to the president, Psaki said: “I don’t know that you’ll see him more than 40 times a month, but I’ll have to tell—I’m happy to ask him that question.”

Just six days into the Biden administration, Psaki took a question about whether the White House would consider bringing back the so-called Skype seat for reporters–something that Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, used before the Trump White House scrapped it. 

“We would,” Psaki responded. “I will say, people don’t usually realize this, but there’s normally about 60 people in this room; I think that’s the right number.  That’s certainly something we would be happy to have in this room, and I think all of you would too, because you’re asking questions on behalf of your colleagues. … We’d certainly be open to taking questions via Skype.”

Since that first week, though, Skype has not become part of the daily press briefing. 

Woodrow Wilson was the first president to hold a formal presidential press conference in March 1913, but such events were rare at the time.

It was 1921–100 years ago–that Warren Harding became the first president to hold regular press conferences. He held twice per week, according to the White House Historical Association. 

Both Wilson and Harding also met with large groups of journalists off the record. 

President Calvin Coolidge held the most press conferences for the number of years he was in office, 521 sessions averaging 93 per year, according to the White House Historical Association. 

President Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to hold an on-the-record, televised press conference, but it was not shown live. His successor, John F. Kennedy, was the first president to hold a live televised press conference. 

“We have to realize that journalists are not asking for a press conference to fill their weekend columns,” Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit focused on journalism education, told The Daily Signal. “It is to get beyond the message of the day for the White House.”

“This White House, like past White Houses, wants to promote their policies. That is legitimate,” Tompkins said. “But journalists have a lot of questions that need to be fleshed out that aren’t on the president’s daily schedule.”

COVID-19 Restrictions

Karem wrote a letter to Psaki, signed by seven other reporters, objecting to White House restrictions on press access. 

The Biden administration began requiring journalists to pay $170 to get a COVID-19 test before entering the White House. It made exceptions, however, for large media corporations with assigned seats in the briefing room that are part of the official press pool. 

The new White House rules also limit media to no more than 80 reporters, photographers, and camera operators at the White House. Of those, 40 are allowed inside and 40 are allowed outside. The socially distanced press briefings are limited to 14 reporters in a room that seats 60. 

“Who the hell is speaking up for independent journalists and freelancers?” Karem said. “They have every right to be there. This is a pay-to-play rule by the White House.” 

On March 3, a reporter asked whether the White House could avoid imposing the $170 charge for COVID-19 tests by vaccinating the White House press corps. 

“The good news is that we now have enough vaccines to—we will by the end of May—to ensure every American is vaccinated —well, a little bit after that, once they are all in place— including journalists,” Psaki responded, adding: 

We put in place new policies. One, our objective is to protect all of you, to protect the people in the White House, and to abide by COVID-safe protocols. As you know—and just for full clarity —anyone who is in the briefing room as a part of the briefing room pool is not paying, is not charged for tests. We cover those tests. Anyone who is in the pool for the president, we cover the cost of those tests. And same for the vice president. 

And our objective is certainly bringing an end to the pandemic and having this room full again without masks, and doing that in a safe way. So we’ll look forward to that. 

Psaki’s response wasn’t a relief to everyone.

The Biden administration seems to be using the pandemic as a cudgel to limit press access, argues Chanel Rion, White House correspondent for One America News Network,

“Her nonanswers are answers in my book,” Rion told The Daily Signal, referring to Psaki. “They don’t want to reopen the briefing room or the White House. It’s much too convenient to allow COVID precautions to be the boogeyman excuse for keeping everyone safe.”

Rion said she doesn’t buy that the White House decided to stop providing coronavirus testing to the press because of the cost. 

“It wasn’t cost prohibitive. We were there every day,” Rion said of herself and an OANN cameraman. “They were not meeting the 80-person limit at any given time.”

Poynter’s Tompkins contends that taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for an independent press. 

“Reporters don’t have the right to be on the White House grounds any more than average citizens, but the White House shouldn’t construct barriers,” Tompkins said. “It’s legitimate to ask, should taxpayers bear the expense. No. Taxpayers shouldn’t. … The taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize the cost of your work.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Psaki’s daily question-and- answer sessions with reporters are noticeably smaller than traditional White House press briefings. However, the same was true for most of the final year of the Trump administration because of the social distance restrictions. 

“The government should assume the costs. On the other hand, it’s reasonable to ask the press to cover at a fair cost,” said Hall, the SPJ president, who is also editorial and opinion director for the San Diego Union-Tribune. “The goal is determining a fair cost. Home tests can be $25. If journalists don’t pay for the testing, the taxpayers will.”

Correspondents Association Speaks Up

Playboy’s Karem said that if the White House is concerned about the cost of testing, it would be less costly just to vaccinate every White House reporter and do away with the daily cost of testing. 

“It’s good for the people in the pool and the people with seats, but not good for everyone else,” Karem said of the current rules for the White House press corps. 

The White House Correspondents Association cited a letter it sent to members in February stating that it opposed charging reporters for vaccines, but was able to persuade the White House press office to cover the costs of pool reporters and those with assigned seats in the briefing room. 

The letter says:

It is, of course, well established that news organizations pay for reporters’ use of certain resources, like seats on government planes or the meals journalists are served while in pool holds. But it is our belief that the establishment of the unique security infrastructure that surrounds the White House, to include this new daily testing requirement, should fall on the government, not journalists working to inform the public. The WHCA has expressed the fear that the cost could be prohibitive for some journalists covering the White House, which may ultimately harm the public’s right to know.

The letter adds that “the WHCA has been able to secure several important commitments from the [Biden] administration to limit some of the impacts of this change to journalists and the American public.” 

This meant free daily coronavirus testing “for journalists serving in a pool for coverage of the president, vice president, first lady and second gentleman” and also “for those assigned briefing room seats on a given day,” the association’s letter says.

These roles are mostly for the large, legacy media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the major TV networks.

Karem wrote in The Bulwark that it seems the Biden White House essentially told WHCA’s board–made up largely of journalists from large news organizations–“to play ball or they’ll be cut out.”

“And the WHCA was intimidated enough to go along with it,” he wrote.

In an interview with The Daily Signal, Karem added that it’s not fair to outsource policing of journalists’ access to the White House Correspondents Association. And, he said, White House reporters did a good job of policing themselves. 

“What’s wrong with getting in if you have a press pass?” Karem said. “The White House Correspondents Association is not paid to do this. It is a group of volunteers with their own full-time jobs. It is an incredible burden on them to decide who has access to the White House.”

So who should do it?

“The Secret Service is well equipped,” he said.

Trump vs. Biden on Transparency

One America News Network’s Rion, who broke with the White House Correspondents Association over a dispute last summer and started a rival organization, said reporters for other media outlets aren’t happy with the access issues. 

“I’ve spoken with people from other networks who complain about having far less access under Biden, but they don’t want to risk speaking out and exploring the night and day difference,” Rion said. 

The COVID-19 restrictions and mandatory testing should be temporary, said John Gizzi, a White House reporter for Newsmax, which has an assigned briefing room seat. 

Gizzi, a veteran Washington reporter, said he would reserve judgment on the Biden White House’s treatment of the press until things return to normal. 

Gizzi said he is glad, however, that the daily press briefing–scrapped by Trump–has returned under Biden. Although Trump personally fielded reporters’ questions on the White House lawn, sometimes for an hour or longer, before departing on the Marine One helicopter, this was a break from tradition, he said. 

“That is the most famous podium in the world where the president or the president’s spokesperson comes out,” Gizzi told The Daily Signal. “People are used to seeing that presidential spokesperson. It has become part of Americana. So, I will give President Biden and Jen Psaki credit for doing something right and good in restoring that daily briefing.”

Aside from not holding a presidential press conference, Biden’s White House thus far has been transparent, SPJ’s Hall said, but the public should recall the Obama administration.

“People need to remember that Biden was part of the Obama administration, which up to that point was the most antagonistic to the media since the Nixon administration,” Hall said. “The Obama administration restricted FOIA [and] went after whistleblowers and some journalists.”

Hall also criticized Trump’s personal attacks on the press.

“Trump was a terrible president in terms of media access. He vilified and went after the press far and away more than any other president,” Hall said. “He stood and took questions, but his answers were often very personal, unprofessional, and unpresidential.”

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