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White House Reporters Prefer Sunlight to Spotlight

The White House Correspondents’ Associates controls the press room seating arrangements, but the White House, itself, determines which individuals receive credentials to enter and line the aisles

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White House spokesman Sean Spicer holds a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Jan. 23, 2017.

Steve Herman became VOA’s White House bureau chief in March after spending 25 years as a foreign correspondent. His previous post required Herman to travel often throughout the world. Now he reports from a small booth on the world’s biggest political stories. Here are his initial impressions of day-to-day work as a White House correspondent.

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The “mushroom method” refers to keeping reporters in the dark and feeding them manure. Throughout many presidential administrations, reporters assigned to the basement by the West Wing have frequently complained of being treated like mushrooms.

Philomena Jurey, who covered Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan for VOA, titled her autobiography A Basement Seat to History.

Others have compared their plight to prisoners in cramped, overcrowded quarters.

White House bureau chief Steve Herman (left) and senior correspondent Peter Heinlein discussing the day’s assignments in the small VOA studio in the basement of the West Wing.

White House bureau chief Steve Herman (left) and senior correspondent Peter Heinlein discussing the day’s assignments in the small VOA studio in the basement of the West Wing.

“Most people think the White House beat is glamorous. It isn’t,” recalls former VOA White House correspondent Paula Wolfson. “It can be a boring grind in a little booth that can feel stifling at times.”

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Wolfson adds that despite the mostly obstructed view the reporters “are an eyewitness to history and the job is what you make of it.”

Once cleared through the northwest gate, the roaming ground for White House correspondents is quite limited with infrequent exceptions.

The reporters can meander unescorted through the two narrow floors encompassing the press briefing room. Down one floor, the basement booths and desks are where VOA and a dozen or so other news outlets maintain their White House bureaus.

‘Pebble Beach’

The only outdoor space not off limits is between the so-called “Palm Room” doors and the winding driveway from the West Wing entrance to an area of the North Lawn where TV reporters’ stand-up positions are known as “Pebble Beach” (once covered with gravel, but now asphalt).

Presidential departures and arrivals via Marine One are generally open to all media with White House passes and credentials. That allows escorted trips to the South Lawn, which doubles as a landing pad for the presidential helicopter.

The events are an opportunity for reporters to shout questions at the arriving or departing president who can feign hearing difficulties due to the noisy aircraft engines.

Members of a White House press pool waiting outside the West Wing on a chilly day.

Members of a White House press pool waiting outside the West Wing on a chilly day.

There may also be glimpses of the president entering or exiting the Oval Office.

No more than a small designated pack of media ever assemble in the president’s famed Oval Office at any one time. This group is known as a “pool,” which shares its video, audio or notes with other non-attendees who toil for outlets on the rotating list of pool duty.

VOA finds itself on in-town pool duty, on average, twice a month. That means standing by for long hours of waiting for something (or nothing) to happen and then hearing a squawk over the loudspeakers to quickly assemble at the Palm Room doors.

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“Nobody is keen on pool duty,” said Wolfson who covered the White House from 1988-92 and again from 2001-2009. “You have to make sure your equipment is ready to record at all times. … And never forget to take a good book.”

These days the book is usually replaced with distracted scrolling through one’s Twitter feed.

Although pool duty is mostly mundane, it is, according to Wolfson, “a necessary evil – ask anyone who was covering the White House when Reagan was shot (in 1981 outside a Washington hotel).”

The most familiar scene involving reporters and the White House is the briefing by the press secretary.

Calling on reporters

In previous administrations, there was a tradition of calling first on a front-row senior wire service reporter (AP nowadays, UPI in decades past).

The White House Correspondents’ Associates controls the press room seating arrangements, but the White House, itself, determines which individuals receive credentials to enter and line the aisles.

FILE - White House press secretary Sean Spicer takes a question from a member of the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Feb. 21, 2017.

FILE – White House press secretary Sean Spicer takes a question from a member of the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Feb. 21, 2017.

VOA has had a full-time presence in the White House press for many decades and occupies a fourth-row permanent seat between National Journal and Fox News Radio in the briefing room.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer, much to the chagrin of the major media outlets, gives less priority to the wires and TV network journalists, instead pointing his finger over them to other reporters, including those on the sidelines. This includes those from entities so obscure that a Google search for their bylines yields no results.

Some reporters who ask questions at the daily briefings are not even in the room – they are the rotating recipients of the new “Skype seats” – their video images beamed in behind the press secretary, who has selected them in advance from across the country.

The interchange between the briefer and the questioners, in every administration, has been testy at times.

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In the Trump White House, however, it has frequently turned into a test of wills. Spicer daily finds himself on the defensive, called on to explain the president’s controversial tweets. He has no reluctance to turn the tables on the media, slamming journalists and accusing them of “deliberately false reporting.”

The reporters and Spicer quickly became material for parodies on television comedy shows, most notably NBC’s Saturday Night Live, where actress Melissa McCarthy portrays an unhinged Spicer ramming reporters with his lectern.

Life threatens to imitate art.

Spicer, when one recent briefing grew tense, quipped “don’t make me make the podium move.”

Behind the scenes in the press room, it has been less jocular.

Inclusion of far-right media

Tempers have frayed over the White House’s decision to credential commentators from far-right online websites, including those accused of supporting white nationalism and trafficking in conspiracies.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer calls on a member of the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 13, 2017.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer calls on a member of the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 13, 2017.

One such figure has commented publicly that he was in the press room primarily to dig up dirt on the established White House correspondents.

The grizzled standard-bearers of the mainstream media in the front row roll their eyes and mutter curses when Spicer points to the back of the room and calls on one of the so-called floaters – usually young Trump cheerleaders who will throw questions at Spicer with all the hardness of a beach ball.

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For the president’s supporters, the media’s criticism falls on deaf ears. Many of them are already critical of the mainstream media, so journalists’ complaints are taken as evidence the administration is following through on Trump’s attacks on the so-called “dishonest” media.

This all puts the White House press room reporters in the spotlight, despite their best efforts to keep it beamed on the president and his players.

Struggling to avoid being cultivated with the mushroom method, the subterranean journalists advocate to a sometimes-skeptical outside world the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” (VOA)

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Trump Sends Undocumented Migrants to Sanctuary Cities

Democrats must change the Immigration Laws FAST. If not, Sanctuary Cities must immediately ACT to take care of the Illegal Immigrants

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Trump Sends Mixed Signals on Migrant Crisis at US-Mexico Border. VOA

The White House on Sunday, echoing President Donald Trump, said sending undocumented migrants to sanctuary U.S. cities that have protected them from deportation remains a possibility even though government agencies have said it would be impractical and there is no money allocated to do it.

“We certainly are looking at all options as long as [opposition] Democrats refuse to acknowledge the crisis at the border,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told the “Fox News Sunday” show.

Trump said late Saturday on Twitter, “Democrats must change the Immigration Laws FAST. If not, Sanctuary Cities must immediately ACT to take care of the Illegal Immigrants – and this includes Gang Members, Drug Dealers, Human Traffickers, and Criminals of all shapes, sizes and kinds. CHANGE THE LAWS NOW!”

Hundreds of U.S. cities, along with California, the country’s most populous state, have declared themselves as havens for migrants who have illegally crossed the southern U.S. border with Mexico, refusing the help U.S. immigration officials to track down the immigrants so they can be deported.

U.S. border authorities apprehended more than 100,000 undocumented migrants, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, at the border in March, nearly twice that in the same month in 2018.

 

“The USA has the absolute legal right to have apprehended illegal immigrants transferred to Sanctuary Cities,” Trump said. “We hereby demand that they be taken care of at the highest level, especially by the State of California, which is well known (for) its poor management & high taxes!”

The U.S. now houses thousands of migrants at the border, but is running out of beds and instead is releasing new arrivals into the U.S. on their promise to appear at asylum hearings that might not occur for two years.

The Department of Homeland Security has said that Congress has not appropriated any money to transport the migrants from the border to far-flung sanctuary cities across the U.S., while the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency has called it an “unnecessary operational burden.”

Sanders said, “Nobody thinks this is the ideal solution,” sending migrants to sanctuary cities. But she said mayors of cities “who want this… should be looking to help” Trump resolve the crisis at the border. She accused Congress of wanting to spend “all of its time investigating the president” rather than dealing with the immigration turmoil at the border.

Trump tweeted, “So interesting to see the Mayor of Oakland and other Sanctuary Cities NOT WANT our currently ‘detained immigrants’ after release due to the ridiculous court ordered 20 day rule. If they don’t want to serve our Nation by taking care of them, why should other cities & towns?”

 

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., arrives at the Capitol on the morning after House and Senate negotiators worked out a border security compromise hoping to avoid another government shutdown, in Washington, Feb. 12, 2019. VOA

Trump was referring to a court ruling prohibiting the U.S. from detaining migrant minors, those under 18 years old, for more than 20 days, before being required to release them to relatives in the U.S. or other care givers.

A key Republican lawmaker, Sen. Lindsey Graham, told another Fox News show, “Sunday Morning Futures with Maria Bartiromo,” that after the current two-week congressional recess ends, he would introduce legislation that would authorize the detention of children beyond 20 days, “toughen up our asylum standards,” and allow migrant children to be returned to Central American countries, which is not now allowed once they have entered the United States.

ALSO READ: Mueller Report Release on 2016 US Presidential Elections Appears Imminent

“We’re never going to change this with troops and walls at the border,” Graham said of the U.S. immigration crisis. “Doing what we’re doing is not working.”

He added, “If you get one foot into the United States,” migrants can seek asylum. “The word is out that if you come with a minor, you’re never going to get deported. We need to change that narrative. We need troops at the border. We need a law. But these [U.S.] laws are insane.” (VOA)