White House Correspondents' Association Looks To the Future

It's election season for the White House Correspondents' Association too, and Banter White House beat beat reporter Tommy Christopher has the scoop on what the candidates have in mind to expand access to the administration, and to improve the image of the association's most visible event, Nerd Prom.
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It's election season for the White House Correspondents' Association too, and Banter White House beat beat reporter Tommy Christopher has the scoop on what the candidates have in mind to expand access to the administration, and to improve the image of the association's most visible event, Nerd Prom.
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While Republicans try to work out their presidential debate Sorting Hat system and Democrats wait for candidates to throw themselves into the Hillary Clinton jet engine, there's another important election campaign underway. The White House Correspondents' Association is getting ready to elect a new president, even as the current president continues to fight for increased access to an increasingly DIY White House. This election comes on the heels of Patrick Gavin's documentaryNerd Prom, which raised as many questions about the press corps' access to the administration as it did about the WHCA's most visible event.

The quest for more and better access is the WHCA's raison d'etre, and in the age of fragmented audiences and social media, it has become much easier for the White House to bypass or manage the independent press, and consequently, more difficult for the association to exert leverage to gain more access. At the same time, the White House press corps has to contend with a raft of outsiders who constantly question the need for it to exist, and write semi-annual hot takes suggesting we just go away.

Current WHCA President Christi Parsons has been much more egalitarian in her fight for access, but for White House reporters who are not in the press pool, and don't work for outlets that the White House feels the need to care about, the association's efforts can seem almost invisible. Getting additional pool-only events, or getting more pool reporters into an event, don't do much for the folks in the back rows.

For my part, I would like to see the association more visibly advocate for the little guys. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on access for the pool, less so for open press events. For example, if there's a pool-only event where some extra space can be made, maybe have a lottery for everyone else to get in on it. Maybe establish a schedule for deputies and officials to be available for round-robins with everyone and/or additional briefings. We have a hard time even getting to see deputies and officials, and when we do, they always want to be on background or off the record, so consequently, all we get are blocks of text out of the briefing book.

On that same note, most of us never get a shot at asking POTUS a question. It would be great if he picked one day at random, at a regular interval, to come to the briefing room and take one question each from everyone who had one, and maybe even exclude outlets that get questions at the formal pressers.

Now, we're facing the prospect of a future administration that, no matter who gets in, will be even more committed to catapulting over the press corps, and shutting out small, independent voices just because they can.

It is against this backdrop that the current crop of candidates for WHCA president are campaigning, since the association elects its officers and board members three years in advance. The next WHCA president, then, will take office after the next POTUS does. The election provides a unique opportunity to shape and assess the WHCA's efforts, because standing officers and board members are, ironically, tough to get talking, while candidate for office are slightly more willing to speak out.

One such candidate is ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jon Karl, who joined the beat when Jake Tapper shuffled off to CNN. Karl is looking to the future, as well.

"My primary focus and motivation for running is to push for greater media access to the president and senior officials, particularly in the next administration," Karl told me, and not just for the big guys or the pool. "It is astounding how many reporters have worked regularly -- for years -- in the White House and have never had the chance to ask a single question of the president and have precious little access to senior officials."

He also noted that the needle is already so far into the red against us that even though he agrees that "the first priority should be fight for full-access, not just pool access," the current lay of the land makes that very challenging.

"We get so little access now that (getting) the full pool in for something passes as a great victory," Karl added, but said he was open to suggestions on how to increase access for everyone.

Current WHCA board member and Bloomberg White House correspondent Margaret Talev is also running for the association presidency, and also sees access for all as a top priority. "The association's starting position with the administration is always full access," she said, but also pointed out that the WHCA is not there to dictate how the White House makes officials available to the press.

Given the challenges facing the press corps now and in the future, though, it seems that the White House Correspondents' Association needs to be at least as creative in expanding access as the White House has, and will be, in skirting it. At least for the time being, the candidates for the next presidency of the WHCA are open to suggestions, and Talev, while praising current president Parsons' outreach to members, promised to continue in the same responsive vein.

Talev is also working on finding an academic partner to create a searchable database of pool reports, those underrated dispatches that apparently go straight into the ether now. Such a database would be an invaluable research tool, as anyone who's ever had to search their Gmail for an old pool report can attest. The pool reports can often seem dull in real time, but are an excellent contemporaneous reference when placed into historical context.

She's also mulling an informal mentorship program for White House correspondents, which is another excellent idea. As a rookie White House reporter, I benefited greatly from the generosity of veteran reporters whom I barely had the courage to say hello to, and I'm crazy self-centered. I can't imagine what it's like for someone new on the beat who has the self-awareness to be awed.

One other issue that comes up a lot in relation to the association is, of course, the dinner. The Nerd Prom movie has been somewhat polarizing among White House reporters, particularly WHCA officers and board members, but there are a few things that almost everyone agrees with. One of those is that the red carpet is an embarrassment. One of the suggestions Gavin makes in the film is that the WHCA do away with the cacophonous promenade, and one current WHCA officer tells me that the subject of banning the red carpet has, indeed, come up.

Unfortunately, White House reporters are an ironically tight-lipped bunch. As much as they agitate for transparency, they're even more prone than a White house deputy to shut down a reporter trying to get a quote, or at best, to insist on anonymity. None of the current WHCA officers I contacted wanted to comment on the record for this story, either refusing to do so or simply not responding. This is a dynamic that I am frustratingly used to, but it's a bit like waiters and waitresses going to a restaurant to eat, and consistently stiffing on the tip.

Luckily, Jon Karl isn't a WHCA officer yet, and so was willing to wade into this chief, most symbolic criticism of the annual dinner. "I am not a fan (of the red carpet) either," Karl says, echoing everyone I've ever asked about it, albeit more mildly. He adds that "I don't think getting rid of it is practical, however. News organizations will still want some venue to interview people coming into the dinner."

This is true, but changing the staging, even if it were just making the carpet a different color and setting some rules of conduct for the media, could have some impact on the circus atmosphere. For example, here's a few seconds of video that I shot of one year's red carpet, but from the angle you don't get to see:

There has to be a medium between that zoo and a total ban.

"Of course there has to be a more dignified way than the red carpet," Karl says, adding "that's something to think about going forward."

On the dinner itself, Karl says he would "like to improve the production of the dinner and make it shorter," even promising that his own speech "will be short -- a few minutes at most!"

Karl also addressed another common complaint about the dinner, the way that journalists (even White House journalists)  get squeezed out in favor of celebrities. "I'd also like to see an overhaul of the way tables are assigned," he says. "For example, I want to be sure all rank-and-file WH reporters can get into the dinner -- and are a higher priority than organizations with no regular White House presence," adding that the next president of the WHCA, Carol Lee, also intends to address that issue.

Finally, Karl says that he would "like to see more focus on using the dinner's convening power to raise more money for the scholarships than the all the glitz," another change that was referenced in the Nerd Prom film.

Whoever is elected in the next round, it might be a good thing for them to practice what they preach in terms of transparency. The WHCA wouldn't allow Patrick Gavin access to last year's dinner to shoot his documentary, and like almost every reporter I know, are as reliant on canned spin and/or flat-out opacity as any politician. A lot of them will try to give me this aw-shucks "Well, I don't want to be the story" jive, as if anyone, anywhere, ever does want to be in someone else's story.