The White House is cur­tail­ing ac­cess for all jour­nal­ists

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - BY DANA MIL­BANK

For the past 21 years, I have had the high priv­i­lege of hold­ing a White House press pass, a mag­i­cal ticket that gives the bearer a front-row seat to his­tory.

I was in the White House the night Bill Clin­ton ad­mit­ted his af­fair with Mon­ica Lewin­sky, and the day he was im­peached. I was there on Sept. 11, 2001, and the fear­ful days there­after, when we were trained to use es­cape hoods. I watched Ge­orge W. Bush make the case for the Iraq War and Barack Obama pitch his reme­dies for the market crash.

But no more. The White House elim­i­nated most brief­ings and se­verely re­stricted ac­cess to of­fi­cial events. And this week came the coup de grace: Af­ter cov­er­ing four pres­i­dents, I re­ceived an email in­form­ing me that Trump’s press of­fice had re­voked my White House cre­den­tial.

I’m not the only one. I was part of a mass purge of “hard pass” hold­ers af­ter the White House im­ple­mented a new stan­dard that des­ig­nated as un­qual­i­fied al­most the en­tire White House press corps, in­clud­ing all seven of The Wash­ing­ton Post’s White House cor­re­spon­dents. White House of­fi­cials then chose which jour­nal­ists would be granted “ex­cep­tions.”

The Post re­quested ex­cep­tions for its seven White House re­porters and for me, say­ing that this ac­cess is es­sen­tial to our work (in my case, I of­ten write “sketches” de­scrib­ing the White House scene). The White House press of­fice granted ex­cep­tions to the other seven, but not to me. I strongly sus­pect it’s be­cause I’m a Trump critic.

I’m not look­ing for pity. Trump’s elim­i­na­tion of brief­ings and other changes have de­val­ued White House cov­er­age any­way. But there’s some­thing wrong with a pres­i­dent hav­ing the power to de­cide which jour­nal­ists can cover him.

Now, vir­tu­ally the en­tire White House press corps is cre­den­tialed un­der “ex­cep­tions,” which means, in a sense, that they all serve at the plea­sure of press sec­re­tary Sarah San­ders be­cause they all fail to meet cre­den­tial­ing re­quire­ments – and there­fore, in the­ory, can have their cre­den­tials re­voked any time they an­noy Trump or his aides, like CNN’s Jim Acosta did.

Last year, Judge Ti­mothy Kelly, a Trump ap­pointee, or­dered the White House to re­store Acosta’s press cre­den­tials, say­ing that the White House’s process for re­vok­ing his ac­cess (af­ter Acosta had ag­gres­sively ques­tioned Trump) was “shrouded in mys­tery.”

In re­sponse, it seems, the White House es­tab­lished a clear – if nearly im­pos­si­ble – stan­dard: no cre­den­tials to any jour­nal­ist who is not in the build­ing on at least 90 out of the pre­vi­ous 180 days – in other words, seven of ev­ery 10 work­days. The White House wouldn’t pro­vide num­bers, but it ap­pears most of the White House press corps didn’t qual­ify for cre­den­tials un­der the new stan­dard.

The White House said it would grant ex­cep­tions for “se­nior jour­nal­ists” who are “con­sis­tently en­gaged in cov­er­ing the White House” and for those with “spe­cial cir­cum­stances.” Though the culling prop­erly elim­i­nated some who no longer needed cre­den­tials, the vic­tims hurt most were free­lance cam­era op­er­a­tors and tech­ni­cians who now could lose their liveli­hood.

The White House, in re­scind­ing my cre­den­tials, told me I had been in the build­ing only seven times in the pre­vi­ous 180 days. (Two foot surg­eries dur­ing that pe­riod kept me at home, though I never came close to the 90-day stan­dard.)

More im­por­tant is that the White House is dras­ti­cally cur­tail­ing ac­cess for all jour­nal­ists. Brief­ings have been abol­ished in fa­vor of un­sched­uled “gag­gles” ( on the record, but im­promptu and hap­haz­ard) in the White House drive­way. The Pen­tagon and State De­part­ment have done sim­i­larly.

The White House has also re­stricted ac­cess by al­low­ing only one jour­nal­ist from a news or­ga­ni­za­tion at most events, and by ad­mit­ting jour­nal­ists to events only if they reg­is­ter days in ad­vance. This has sharply re­duced jour­nal­ists’ at­ten­dance at the White House – just in time for the 90-day at­ten­dance purge.

I’ll keep cov­er­ing the White House, al­beit from a dis­tance, and wait for things to re­turn to nor­mal – if they ever do.

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