“Next we’ll see a plague of locusts and frogs,” one White House staffer said sarcastically Tuesday afternoon.
Several staffers were talking about the latest scandal to hit the presidency as White House reporters waited for Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ off-camera briefing Monday afternoon – and some of those staffers were cackling over rumors the White House Correspondents Association seemed to be embroiled in its own controversy.
The WHCA, long known as the guys who put on the Correspondents’ Dinner every year – and, until recently, not known for much more than that – decided recently to change its bylaws. The byproduct of the move would keep right-wing rabblerouser Breitbart – among a few others – from having a regular membership to the organization.
Four or five reporters would be affected by the change, denying them the ability to serve on the Association’s board or vote in the Association’s elections. They would still enjoy the association’s protection and, more importantly, be able to go to the Correspondent’s Dinner. (After all, that still is the main draw) but organizations unable to come up with U.S. congressional press passes (The gold standard, according to WHCA outgoing president Jeff Mason) would be cut out of the flock of “regular” members.
So Monday, as the chaos and bedlam rained down on D.C., with many asking, “Is there anyone in Russia who didn’t talk to the Trump campaign,” the venerable WHCA found itself embroiled in a controversy some said was of its own making.
In a letter signed by reporters from conservative outlets ike Newsmax, Circa and the Daily Signal – along with longtime correspondent Connie Lawn and liberal commentator Bill Press – the signatories urged the WHCA to vote no, put off the proposal or grandfather in existing reporters who otherwise would be removed from the status of a “regular” member of the WHCA.
The unflappable Mason remained calm Tuesday and explained to several reporters who attended a town hall-style meeting that the change in the bylaws had nothing to do with Breitbart. Rather the bylaws had to be changed because they hadn’t been changed in decades.
Despite their own rapidly unfurling controversies, members of the White House staff had a good time cackling at the WHCA’s expense Tuesday when they heard about the meeting. The White House staff would desperately love to have a controversy overcome their daily dose of, “Take two scandals and call me in the morning,” but Donald Trump Jr. isn’t helping much.
It now appears crystal clear who the president has been protecting from the very beginning: His own son. DJT Jr. may have broken enough laws to guarantee he’ll never have to worry about purchasing anything but orange jump suits for the rest of his life.
But there are those in the White House who want to talk about the change in the WHCA bylaws, saying the vote – which is due to be completed by Friday – gives the association a black eye, limits transparency and appears to divide the media. Mason allowed every member who had an opinion on the issue speak their mind Monday before allowing the vote to proceed.
In the end if the regular members want to, in effect, vote out Breitbart (since Breitbart has been denied congressional press passes) then Breitbart reporters will not suffer unduly at the hands of the mighty WHCA. They’ll be associate members, get into White House pools, enjoy the same protection as everyone else – but will be unable to be involved in decision-making for the organization.
Some see that as “just desserts” for an organization with strong ties to Steve Bannon. Others see it as divisive and playing into the hands of the administration which wants to paint everyone possible with the “Fake News” and “liberal media” bias.
Yet, for all the posturing, real problems with access are paramount. The news organizations which supply the reporters to the White House have far more control over the ability to push for better relations from the White House than the WHCA does, which is a fact that Mason pointed out during the meeting Monday night.
That makes the WHCA a bit of a paper tiger. It cannot tell reporters how to do their job and while the board serves as a “liaison” with the White House (a monumental task) – it cannot force the White House into any type of behavior. It’s the media companies that wield the actual power, and many of those large organizations do not like to make waves.
For instance, during the meeting, radio reporter and author April Ryan asked about security and privacy issues regarding the White House move to supply Wi-Fi for all reporters on the campus. Morally grey territory, especially since no one is sure whether or not the White House would eavesdrop on reporters or engage in unwarranted surveillance.
In the current environment, dozens of reporters privately express their frustration with the White House – and now some are expressing it about the WHCA – but little can be done publicly. The public face remains stoic.
While many reporters have said and understand the rules have changed, there are those who believe reporters are in a gentlemanly disagreement. They don’t understand the president is in a street brawl to undermine the First Amendment and reporters in general – unless they agree with him.
There is a fear among some of the reporters – particularly those who signed onto the letter presented before the WHCA board – that we are doing our level best to make the president’s goal of destroying free speech more possible. “An unintended consequence of this proposed rules change could be undermining the WHCA Board’s public credibility when fighting for access and transparency if the WHCA has arguably excluded some outlets from full membership. It also further hurts the WHCA’s ability to fight united for more press access,” the letter said.
The White House would love nothing more than have the press turn on itself in a cannibalistic display of gluttony. This move may not be what some fear and others hope for, but in a time when scandals break daily, the appetite for it becomes voracious.
Some reporters want to keep their heads down. Some want to punish Breitbart – but it appears a growing number want to get real facts, do their job and report on an administration that increasingly looks like a cross between Good Fellas and Beavis and Butthead.
The question remains will the large media conglomerates unleash the power the press can actually wield and force the president’s hand – or will they disintegrate into a miasma of petty disagreements over who actually represents the media. Which is a shame, because it occurs at a time when the general public desperately wants to see more action and less stoicism in our ranks.