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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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Report: Trump Administration to Eliminate Refugee Admissions to Zero in Coming Year

Since the so-called “refugee ceiling” is an upper limit, and not a quota, the government is not required to meet the annual admissions number

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Migrant children sleep on the floor of a shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, July 17, 2019. Asylum-seekers grappled to understand a new U.S. policy that all but eliminates refugee claims by Central Americans and many others. VOA

The Trump administration is considering more dramatic cuts to the U.S. refugee program, with one official suggesting the White House not allow any refugees into the country in the coming fiscal year.

In a Politico report released Thursday, government officials from several federal agencies attended a meeting last week and discussed several options that included a ceiling of 10,000 — well below the current refugee ceiling of 30,000, which is already an all-time low for the program.

The U.S. resettled 23,190 refugees since the beginning of fiscal 2019 last October. With 2½ months remaining until the count resets, the U.S. is on track to fall short of this year’s cap, according to U.S. State Department data.

Since the so-called “refugee ceiling” is an upper limit, and not a quota, the government is not required to meet the annual admissions number.

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Trump repeatedly attempted a ban on refugees with multiple executive orders on travel during his first year in office, citing “national security” concerns. VOA

Multiple figures

Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, one of the primary refugee resettlement nongovernmental organizations in the U.S., said he has heard multiple figures proposed for the coming fiscal year, all well below the program’s historical annual threshold of around 60,000 to 70,000.

In President Barack Obama’s last year two years in office, his administration made a concerted effort to increase the number of admitted refugees, with a particular focus on Syrians fleeing conflict and persecution.

And since the U.S. president is the one who ultimately makes the final decision when it comes to the number of refugee admissions, President Donald Trump has leeway to further reduce the total allowed.

“The president hasn’t made an actual decision, that won’t happen till October. But I suspect they’re testing the waters a bit to see if, in fact, the public will respond to this, and if there will be any public outrage,” Arbeiter told VOA. “So it is a proposed number, it is not a final number, but a number anywhere between zero, and we’ve heard 3,000, 7,000 10,000, but anywhere in that range, what it effectively does is it closes the door on refugees, and effectively constitutes a total ban on refugees.”

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The journey has become more dangerous because of greater reliance by refugees and migrants on smugglers to transport them to the U.S. border. VOA

Earlier ban attempts

Trump repeatedly attempted a ban on refugees with multiple executive orders on travel during his first year in office, citing “national security” concerns. Those worries, however, were not substantiated by data and no scientific study demonstrates a correlation between refugee admissions and elevated crime or security risks.

Each year, the president makes an annual determination, after appropriate consultation with Congress, regarding the refugee admissions ceiling for the following fiscal year. That determination is expected to be made before the start of fiscal 2020 on Oct. 1, 2019.

ALSO READ: Democrats Campaigning on Medicare for All Wrestling With How to Pay for The Dramatic Overhaul

The U.S. State Department is one of the leading agencies involved in the deliberation process with the White House over refugee admissions. In an emailed statement Friday, a spokesperson reiterated the president makes the decision on the ceiling every year “after appropriate consultation with Congress.”

Beyond that, however, the spokesperson said the State Department would “not discuss internal and interagency deliberations or communications involved in such deliberations.” Last year, however, the White House was criticized by members of Congress after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the fiscal 2019 cap would be 30,000, before the legally required meetings with Capitol Hill lawmakers happened. (VOA)