If you want to get the highest-level media pass, the Trump administration says, you’d better be prepared to spend a lot of your time actually covering the White House. Apparently, the majority of journalists don’t — and that’s causing quite a stir among the media.
Earlier this year, the administration rolled out new rules for what reporters can get a “hard pass” — the pass that allows the easiest access to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
In March, Politico reported that “White House reporters grew concerned over the weekend after receiving an email from the press office informing them that they needed to be present at the White House at least 50 percent of the time to be eligible for a hard pass, a credential that allows for the swiftest access to the grounds.”
“’To qualify for a hard pass, you need to be physically present at the White House for your job 90 or more days in a 180-day window of time,’ read the email, which reiterated guidance sent to bureau chiefs in Feb. 2017 that apparently wasn’t shared widely with reporters. The email noted that journalists can also apply for six-month passes if covering the White House at least 60 of 180 days.”
Under the new rules, according to The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, almost the entire press corps at the White House failed to meet the new criteria.
There are two ways to look at this. The first, obviously, is that hard passes should be given to those who spend the most time covering the White House. Much has been made about the cult of the celebrity journalist in the Trump administration (coughcoughJimAcostacough) who shows up at the White House during major events or presidential news conferences to preen for the cameras but doesn’t actually do the legwork inside the executive manse.
However, there’s an obvious downside to this: Most of the best White House journalists don’t just report on the president. Political journalists have plenty to cover throughout these United States, particularly during the lugubrious two-year process of nominating a Democrat and then seeing whether he or she can unseat the president.
“As laid forth in the email, the 50 percent rule doesn’t consider that reporters are often out for weekends, vacations, campaign-trail reporting, or presidential trips abroad,” the Washington Examiner’s Steven Nelson reported. “Many outlets, concerned journalists said, rotate reporters from the bureau to the White House to work from their small West Wing desks.”
Furthermore, the 50 percent rule isn’t necessarily new — the White House issued similar guidlines in February of 2017 — but enforcement is.
“After covering four presidents, I received an email informing me that Trump’s press office had revoked my White House credential,” Dana Milbank, a veteran White House reporter, wrote in a Wednesday piece.
“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 Post’s White House correspondents. White House officials then chose which journalists would be granted ‘exceptions.’ It did this over objections from news organizations and the White House Correspondents’ Association.”
Milbank noted that The Post requested an exemption for all eight of its reporters affected; seven of them received one, but Milbank, an administration critic, did not. He wrote that, “The move is perfectly in line with Trump’s banning of certain news organizations, including The Post, from his campaign events and his threats to revoke White House credentials of journalists he doesn’t like.”
Except they gave exemptions to the other seven who, given their employer, probably aren’t rock-ribbed Republicans throwing softballs at Sarah Sanders.
Conservatives shouldn’t pretend this is automatically a Good Thing™ even if it irks a group of individuals we generally find irksome. There are two interpretations of this rule: that the White House wants reporters and correspondents who actually work there most of the time instead of celebreporters who love to pontificate in the briefing room but don’t really cover the White House beat, or that the White House simply wants to restrict journalists it doesn’t like from coming in.
If it’s the former, I’m perfectly willing to have a wait-and-see attitude as to whether this improves the quality of coverage. There are arguments to be made both ways. There’s a good chance that this could attenuate the media circus that’s prevailed at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave since Jan. 20, 2017. There’s also a good chance that all the White House is doing is poking the circus bears.
Consider this take from the Columbia Journalism Review, which has always been a good navel-gazing barometer of what the media is thinking about itself at any given moment in time: “Now, with its new standards for performance and most of the press corps holding passes that have only been issued as ‘exceptions,’ the White House has a structure in place that could allow it to remove whoever it wishes to remove. That wouldn’t necessarily override First Amendment protection for press access … but in the short term it gives the Trump administration new levers with which to control the press corps.”
Even if this is beyond overdramatic, expect this kind of rhetoric for a while. Whatever productive elements may come of the policy, the blowback is going to be intense.
If it’s the latter, I know it’s tempting for conservatives to give into schadenfreude and laugh at Dana Milbank and others affected by this new policy. God knows they’ve had enough open contempt for anyone to the right of Hillary Clinton.
That being said, even when the media is as biased as it is, using hard passes to openly reward “good behavior” doesn’t exactly feel like the White House is upholding the American virtues of a free news media and transparency. I know, the Obama administration used similar tactics in its war with Fox News, but that’s not exactly an example to emulate.
Even if you want to look at this at the most base Machiavellian level, it helps to remember the Golden Rule of politics: “Do unto others as they do unto you.” If and when there’s another Democrat in the Oval Office, how many conservative outlets do you think will be getting hard passes? What do you think the odds are that this goes even further?
But then, it’s worth noting that for all the sturm und drang over this new policy, no one’s access to the White House is actually being limited, according to Sarah Sanders. They’re simply not all being given the hard pass, which provides the quickest access to the grounds and has the longest expiration date. Milbank, for all of his whinging, is still being given a six-month pass, despite the fact that he acknowledges he “had been in the building only seven times in the previous 180 days.”
When it comes to celebreporters, you’d also be hard-pressed to find one less fundamentally serious than Milbank, who wrote, two days before his hard pass jeremiad, that President Trump should be given $10 billion in reparations to leave office. That article might induce a snicker or two, but it also may not induce too much sympathy for the fact that this guy can only get a six-month pass.
In short, I don’t necessarily know that this will end up being good policy, but I won’t be losing any sleep over the poor reporters stuck without a first-class White House pass, either.
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