White House Correspondents Association Struggles To Find Role In 2016 Election

What to do when the biggest disputes over access have shifted from the briefing room to the campaign trail?
The White House Correspondents Association has found itself in the unusual position of dealing with sustained campaign press controversies.
The White House Correspondents Association has found itself in the unusual position of dealing with sustained campaign press controversies.
Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

The White House Correspondents Association, as its name implies, is primarily concerned with press access to the White House. But the biggest media disputes this past year have occurred on the campaign trail, prompting the association, at times, to wade cautiously into controversies involving not the sitting president but the candidates trying to replace him.

Its latest attempt to weigh in on behalf of journalists, however well-intentioned, led to a backlash among the press.

Wall Street Journal reporter Carol Lee and Reuters’ Jeff Mason, the outgoing and incoming WHCA presidents, respectively, wrote a USA Today op-ed Thursday on 2016 campaign restrictions. To some journalists and media critics, the piece suggested the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have approaches to the press that are similarly problematic.

They are not.

Clinton’s refusal to hold a news conference for more than seven months deserves criticism, and White House reporters should be concerned about the precedent being set. If elected president, would Clinton ever meet with the press?

Still, the Trump campaign’s treatment of the press has been far more troubling, including onerous restrictions at events, gratuitous swipes at journalists, threats of opening libel laws, physical attacks and operating a media blacklist that is unprecedented in American politics.

The framing of Lee and Mason’s piece, titled “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press,” was described by The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple as an “absurd false equivalence.”

“On balance, though, Trump is a hazard to the media; Clinton runs from it,” Wemple wrote. “Veteran reporters like Lee and Mason are trained to draw such distinctions, yet they appear to believe that the concept of fairness requires a finding of equal culpability between the presidential contenders.”

In a joint statement Friday, Lee and Mason pushed back against the criticism.

“Our op-ed laid out legitimate and different concerns that we have about each candidate with regard to the press,” they wrote in the statement, published in full below. “We did not render a verdict on which candidate poses more of a problem; people can draw their own conclusions about that. To suggest that we were somehow presenting a ‘false equivalency’ misses our point.”

In a normal election cycle, the occasional statement reiterating support for press freedom may have sufficed. But the Trump campaign’s severe restrictions have led some journalists to privately discuss whether collective action is needed.

The problem is there’s no equivalent to the WHCA for campaign reporters, which puts the century-old organization in an unusual position. Does the WHCA stick with tradition and focus on the waning months of President Barack Obama’s administration, while only speaking out occasionally? Or does it intervene more forcefully given that one of these two presumptive nominees will be taking over in January?

“The WHCA’s focus is access to the White House and the president,” Lee told HuffPost prior to Thursday’s op-ed. “While campaigns for the president matter, it’s not the president. And so there’s a little bit of a distance that’s been traditionally maintained. We’ve waded in when we felt that things were building up enough that it was useful for us to say something.”

The WHCA’s first comment came in March in response to reports that Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, had physically assaulted reporter Michelle Fields. (Lewandowski was later fired by the campaign, and Fields now writes for The Huffington Post.)

The WHCA condemned any “violence or intimidation” against journalists in response to the assault report and expressed being “increasingly concerned with some of the rhetoric aimed at reporters covering the presidential race.” The statement didn’t specify any campaign as being primarily responsible for the uptick in heated language. However, Trump, by far, has leveled the most personal attacks on reporters, whom he frequently labels “disgusting” at rallies.

In June, the WHCA criticized the Trump campaign for denying press credentials to news outlets after The Washington Post ― a higher-profile outlet than others barred from events ― was added to the blacklist. The Trump campaign had already been denying credentials for nearly a year to other outlets, such as BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post.

The WHCA’s sporadic public statements are its most visible responses this cycle, but its members do more behind the scenes too. The WHCA’s leadership keeps tabs on problems bubbling up at campaign events based on their own experiences and conversations with colleagues. And WHCA board members have traditionally met with campaigns of the major party nominees to advise them on coordinating a “protective pool” system by which a rotating pool of reporters cover the Republican and Democratic candidates each day, as is done for the sitting president.

In May, Lee and Mason met privately with Trump press secretary Hope Hicks and Lewandowski. The conversation was pegged to arranging a pool, though Lee recently told HuffPost the WHCA representatives made clear to Trump’s team that the group doesn’t tolerate banning news outlets in the White House.

Mason, who began his term this week, recently said over email that the group would be watching the campaigns closely and will weigh in when we need to do so,” though reiterated the WHCA’s mission is to focus on the White House. “Our priority is to keep doing what we’ve been doing: press for access to the president and his staff on a daily basis as he closes out his administration,” he said.

Some veteran White House reporters, such as CBS News’ Bill Plante, believe the WHCA should continue its mission to focus primarily on the White House, even as he’s troubled by the Trump campaign barring some news outlets from events.

“The whole idea that you can ban reporters because you don’t like their coverage flies in the face of freedom of the press,” Plante said in a HuffPost interview this week. And if a Trump White House “were trying to ban a news organization from the White House briefing room because they didn’t like their coverage,” he added, “there would be a huge reaction I’m sure.”

Still, Plante said he expected a Clinton White House, like its predecessors, to try getting around journalists. “Every administration, beginning with the Reagan administration, has tried to assert more and more control over the press,” he said.

New York Times reporter Peter Baker, who has covered the last three presidents, also pointed out in an email that the WHCA’s mission has always been focused on the White House, “but over the years it has weighed in from time to time in trying to prod those who want to live in the White House to recognize the obligations of transparency that come with the job.”

“Should it take that on in a more fulsome, comprehensive way? It’s worth debating,” Baker said. “You could argue it’s better that we make our expectations and views known earlier in the process rather than just wait until someone shows up at our door on January 20 every four years. But keep in mind that many if not most of the reporters covering the campaign don’t belong to the association, so it would require rethinking our membership and who we aim to serve.”

The full statement from the WHCA’s Lee and Mason is below:

The White House Correspondents’ Association defends the First Amendment in the context of the presidency, and, as such, speaks up when a presumptive nominee from either party falls short. Our op-ed laid out legitimate and different concerns that we have about each candidate with regard to the press. We did not render a verdict on which candidate poses more of a problem; people can draw their own conclusions about that. To suggest that we were somehow presenting a “false equivalency” misses our point.

This is not about comparing one candidate with the other; it is about scrutinizing how the candidates would conduct themselves in the White House in relation to the press. We were clear in our op-ed about what concerns we have with Hillary Clinton and with Donald Trump on that specific point. We will advocate strongly for the winner in November to respect a free press based on the principles of the First Amendment, not on a scale shaped by his or her rival.

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