Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart was White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
For the last couple of years of President Clinton’s second term, there was a particularly colorful member of the White House press corps. He attended the briefings almost every day and badgered me with long, convoluted questions, often circling back to Catholic Church issues. At times it was amusing, other days it was disruptive.
This reporter got cleared in every day by White House press staff because he didn’t qualify for a permanent White House press pass based on the criteria established by the White House Correspondents Association. One day, one of my staff members asked me why we wouldn’t just refuse to clear him in. They argued he was wasting other reporters’ time and was very distracting to all. I didn’t have to think twice about my response: We should never get into the position of deciding which reporters should be allowed to cover the President and which shouldn’t. (I did tell my staff on rainy days to wait five minutes before clearing him in. At least if he was going to be annoying, he’d arrive soaking wet.)
I tell this story to illustrate the danger of the new White House policy that cracks down on who gets the permanent – or “hard” – press pass. As background, those who qualify for hard passes get to enter the White House every day just by showing the pass, much like other White House staffers. Those who don’t qualify have to request access on a day-to-day basis.
Under the new rules, a journalist can only renew their hard pass if they have come onto White House grounds at least 90 of the 180 days prior to renewal, with exceptions given for some senior journalists who don’t meet the requirement and specific circumstances like maternity leave. This threshold is a tough one to meet.
While it previously would have been easy to limit access for reporters who wrote negative stories, the old policy removed that temptation, as there was no precedent for revoking the credentials of qualified journalists. Under the new White House rules, deciding on a daily basis whether to grant press access to those whose permanent credentials have been revoked offers a strong a temptation to deny access based on a reporter’s latest story.
Essentially, that’s the slippery slope Sarah Sanders and the White House have started down. A significant number of White House reporters have lost their permanent daily access based on the new policy, according to The Washington Post. There is no evidence yet that any of them will be denied access to do their jobs, but the combination of the new rules and this administration’s attitude toward the press make it almost inevitable.
Let’s not forget that for a time during the campaign, Trump personally banned entire news organizations from access to his events based on stories he didn’t like. It’s not a stretch to think that a similar plan is in the works now at the White House.
So why is it so wrong for the press secretary to decide who gets access to the White House grounds? Just look at how the President communicates with the media. He’s done countless interviews with Fox News because its reporters are friendly and rarely ask him a tough question. Meanwhile, he avoids interviews with CNN, which he knows would ask the tough questions that the public has a right to hear.
If that philosophy is applied to the decision of who gets into the White House grounds, we will be dividing the American media along ideological lines. There would be preferred media like Fox News that gets exclusive access to the White House. And we run the risk that a newspaper like the Washington Post, which has been skeptical of many Trump initiatives and statements, will be left outside looking in.
I’m sure there are those who will shoot back by saying that with limited press briefings, there is little point of being on the grounds anyway. But most White House reporters will tell you just being there gives them a greater view and perspective of what’s going on with the President and his staff. There are things you can’t see or understand just by watching TV and monitoring the President’s Twitter feed.
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For example, the great Helen Thomas used to sit in the chair right outside the Press Secretary’s office for hours in the morning. I’d see her at 6:30 in the morning when I arrived and she would stay until after the 9:30 p.m. gaggle meeting with reporters. I asked her one day why she bothered – the coffee I’d get her wasn’t that great, after all. She said she could tell what the day would bring just by watching the faces and expressions of the senior staffers who came in and out of my office. Some reporters wondered how she always knew something was about to break. She knew because she showed up every day and used the access she was granted to report.
Americans may be tired of the press complaining about White House access. To be honest, there were times I got tired of it also. But this move isn’t just about access. It’s about reporters being able to represent the American people in a thorough way on the White House grounds. Picking and choosing who gets in is another step that threatens basic press freedoms. And if you love and care about our democracy, this is a debate you should pay attention to. Autocrats decide who and how they’re covered. We don’t do that in America.