The White House Correspondents Association sent an email to its members Monday begging them to practice “decorum” during White House press briefings. The email was sent in response to an incident earlier in the day when Simon Ateba, a correspondent for Today News Africa, accused White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre of “making a mockery” of the First Amendment by refusing to call on him at briefings for seven months. In a bizarre clip, Jean-Pierre stands at the podium dismissing Ateba, while the White House press corps hiss “decorum!” at him. KJP is flanked by the cast of Ted Lasso, who were at the briefing to talk about mental health.
This was not the first time the WHCA sent a message about “decorum” in response to Ateba, who has at least twice now stood up for reporters from smaller outlets who routinely go months without receiving a question in the briefing room. This one was certainly the most emphatic:
As you all know, there was an extreme breakdown of decorum in today’s Daily Briefing. What happened today created a hostile work environment for everyone in that room. This isn’t my first note to the press corps imploring everyone to be respectful of each other and to conduct ourselves in a professional manner during these televised briefings. Unfortunately, this is an issue that keeps recurring despite our best efforts to encourage basic decorum. You have told us that you are deeply frustrated with the outbursts and we share that frustration.
Seriously, a “hostile work environment” because someone spoke out of turn? May I remind the WHCA that reporters quite literally got famous during the Trump administration for shouting at every White House press secretary from Sean Spicer to Kayleigh McEnany?
Brian Karem was heralded by the media when he accused Sarah Sanders of “inflaming” people by calling out a fake news report from CNN and eventually got a contributor position at the cable news channel out of it. In a separate incident, Karem invoked Sanders’s children while demanding to know if she has “empathy” for migrant children who are held separately from their parents at the southern border.
Similarly, CNN’s Jim Acosta was awarded with his own program on the network after his bout at the Trump White House, during which he constantly got into acerbic debates with Sanders, White House policy advisor Stephen Miller and Kayleigh McEnany.
Reporter April Ryan accused Sarah Sanders of trying to start a “physical fight” with her. When CNN’s Kaitlan Collins lobbed a similar complaint as Simon Ateba at Kayleigh McEnany — “you haven’t taken questions since October 1… that’s not doing your job” — the rest of the media fawned. Again, where were the cries for decorum during any of these incidents?
The WHCA only takes issue with Ateba’s callouts for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that he is disrupting a Democratic administration rather than a Republican one. The second reason is that he is exposing the dirty little secret of White House reporting: that the entire system is set up to benefit the legacy media.
The WHCA gets to create the briefing room seating chart. They are the ones who give the front-row, permanent assignments to the major cable news networks and relegate conservative and independent outlets to the back rows — if they’re allowed a seat at all. Everyone knows that the individuals in the first few rows are more likely to be called on by the press secretary. Everyone else has to beg for scraps.
As I write in a new excerpt from my book, “Of the forty-nine seats in the briefing room, just nine are occupied by right-leaning news outlets. If you exclude Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and Fox Radio, then you’re down to six. Of those six, five are seated in the back rows.”
The situation is the same when gathering for questions when the president arrives at or departs from the White House. Television reporters are given priority access at the front of the rope, while other reporters who might have legitimate questions beyond the typical “gotcha” are crowded out at the back of the gaggle.
When liberal reporters from large outlets are threatened with a loss of access to the White House, the WHCA is quick to throw its weight behind them in support. The WHCA leapt to Acosta’s defense when the Trump administration suspended his hard pass. Conservatives, meanwhile, are thrown to the wolves. During the Covid pandemic, the WHCA used social distancing guidelines as an excuse to even further restrict access to smaller outlets. Dozens of reporters were forced to rotate through just one briefing room seat, while the legacy media kept their permanent spots. When Chanel Rion with One America News found a way around the arbitrary restrictions, the WHCA attempted to revoke her credentials themselves. OAN was also stripped of its briefing room seat and its work station.
Is Simon Ateba really creating a “hostile work environment” by airing legitimate grievances about White House reporting that have gone unheard for years? Or is the Washington press corps just angry that their slice of the pie could get smaller if a fairer system is enacted?