Trump Team Considers Moving Press Corps, Alarming Reporters

by admin January 15, 2017 at 10:40 pm
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President Obama last month in the White House press briefing room.

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Al Drago/The New York Times

In the 1890s, journalists covering the president were forced to stand vigil outside the White House fence, querying visitors for scraps of information and appealing for audiences with presidential aides.

Today’s reporters are concerned that President-elect Donald J. Trump could send them back into the past.

The White House press corps was stunned on Sunday by reports of a proposal by the Trump administration to eject reporters from their home in the West Wing — a move that, if carried out, would uproot decades of established protocol whereby journalists are allowed to work in the White House close to senior officials.

Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s incoming chief of staff, appeared to backpedal on the idea after it was reported by Esquire magazine, saying that only the location of the press briefing room was being discussed and that the administration was merely considering a larger area to accommodate the hundreds of journalists seeking to cover Mr. Trump.

But for jittery Washington reporters, it was yet another salvo from an administration that has shown an unusual willingness to berate and belittle the news media, at the behest of a president-elect who has floated the idea of rolling back libel protections and, in a volcanic appearance last week, refused to take questions from CNN after it ran a story he did not like.

The sense of alarm was clear last week when more than 100 reporters showed up to a routine meeting of the White House Correspondents’ Association. The group, which promotes reporters’ access to presidential administrations, pledged to be vigilant about responding to any erosion of press freedoms. “We are all in this together,” said Jeff Mason of Reuters, the group’s president.

Since the 1970s, reporters from broadcast, print and radio outlets have worked in small cubicles on the former site of a West Wing swimming pool. The reporters can walk, without a security escort, to the offices of White House press aides and the press secretary to check in on developments or to pick up the latest gossip.

It was not clear on Sunday whether the administration’s idea to relocate the White House press corps might extend to evicting reporters from their office space. “That hasn’t been determined,” Mr. Priebus told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Later, on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Priebus said, “The only thing that’s been discussed is whether or not the initial press conferences are going to be in that small press room.”

Few presidents relish sharing their home with reporters who are responsible for questioning their every move. But journalists have been granted space in the White House since the William McKinley administration, and their presence as the public’s representative is seen as a potent symbol of a president’s willingness to be held to account.

Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, issued a statement on Sunday that did not address the issue of a dedicated work space. “While no decisions have been made, there is enormous interest in covering Donald Trump,” he wrote. “The current briefing room only has 49 seats, so we have looked at rooms within the White House to conduct briefings that have additional capacity.”

Mr. Mason said he was planning to meet with Mr. Spicer on Sunday to seek clarity on the administration’s plans. “We object strenuously to any move that would shield the president and his advisers from the scrutiny of an on-site White House press corps,” Mr. Mason wrote in an email.

Mr. Trump’s communications team has pledged to shake up the status quo, inviting nontraditional journalists — including talk radio hosts and conservative bloggers — to the West Wing and prohibiting television coverage of daily press briefings, an idea that is supported by some former press secretaries of both political parties.

Mr. Spicer denounced the news media last week at a news conference, describing CNN and BuzzFeed News as “sad” and “pathetic” for reporting on unverified allegations about Mr. Trump and Russia.

But initial discussions between the White House press corps and the new administration have been described as diplomatic, with Mr. Trump’s team pledging to retain reporters’ access to the president’s motorcade and his flights on Air Force One.

Bob Schieffer, a longtime CBS News anchor who has covered eight previous presidential administrations, said on Sunday that he was not surprised to see tensions between a new president and the news media.

“They’re not the first administration that’s come to office thinking they can control every single word that’s said about them,” he said in an interview. “It’s their call, they can do what they want to do, and if the public puts up with it, they’ll continue to do it that way.”

But, he added: “If they think they’re not going to get the same intense coverage, they’ve been smoking something.”

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