By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
National Park Service plan to relocate the pressroom outside
the White House meets strong opposition from journalists wp.
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE plans to move the White House press corps from its current spot in the West Wing were met with staunch opposition from correspondents.
As part of its $2.9-million design plan for the White House and surrounding park land, the National Park Service drafted three proposals, two of which called for moving the press out of the White House. The third would upgrade the existing facilities, which are extremely crowded.
The alternate pressroom sites were either in the Old Executive Office Building, which is adjacent to the White House, or in a below-ground area between the two buildings.
“When I heard that, I said it is completely unacceptable,” said White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) president Kenneth T. Walsh of U.S. News & World Report.
“The [WHCA] board unanimously opposed any effort to move the White House press corps out of the White House,” Walsh said.
“In our jobs, proximity is essential,” he explained, adding that “other administrations talked about moving us out of the White House” but, obviously, it was never done.
“If the White House [staff] wants to get someone in to see the president without the media knowing about it, it can do that,” he pointed out. “Our feeling is, the more proximity we have to the people we’re covering, the better it is for good journalism and for conveying information to our readers and viewers and listeners.
“The White House is always interested in controlling the message,” he continued. “There is a natural tug of war there. We don’t want to give up the access we have.”
Walsh also noted that White House press secretary Mike McCurry indicated that President Clinton would not go along with any plan to move the correspondents out of the White House.
“The press office is not interested in moving us out of the White House,” Walsh said. “I can’t see how the Park Service could proceed with a plan the White House opposes, and the White House said it opposes moving the press corps. As far as the Clinton presidency is concerned, it’s not going to move us.”
The National Park Service’s Ann Smith, who is project coordinator for the Comprehensive Design Plan for the White House, agreed that “when we started, we were only looking at the space issue and did not have the other pieces.”
Smith said the correspondents “made it clear their access needs override the space needs.”
The crowded press area at the White House has been a “long-standing problem,” Walsh noted, adding that, ideally, the press would keep what it has and expand it.
“Our main need is more space,” he said. “The key for us is that we have to be in the White House. Too many news organizations could not do their jobs effectively if they did not have access.”
Walsh said that the National Park Service planners were “not looking at media facilities in an access sense, just at use of facilities. They did not consider access of media as a priority.
“Once they added that to the mix, past thoughts of moving us out are not part of this plan,” he said. “I would be surprised if they came back to any plan that moved us out of the White House.”
He added that “now, to their credit, the Park Service people working on this project put together a working group including the media.”
Park Service officials, after hearing the objections, put together the media working group and asked it to come up with a 20-year plan for what it will need.
Park Service planners recently toured the White House press facilities to get an idea of “what kind of space problems, technical problems and access issues are of importance to the press corps,” said Smith.
At the end of April, the media working group is slated to present to the Park Service a report on its needs for space and storage, technology and access for the next 20 years.
“We’re looking very long term,” she added. “For those reasons, we asked them to look that far out . . . .
“The intent of the working group is to work together to work it out,” Smith continued. “We’re at the point where we’re saying, What are your needs? What are the possibilities?
“It’s important for people to know this is going on. If they have an interest or concern, to get in now. The goal of the whole planning effort is to look at what needs to be here 20 years from now,” she explained.
Smith said there likely will be a few more meetings with the media as they work out a suitable plan.
“We were worried about it, but I think we made our point so clear ? how we were strongly opposed to and united against any effort to move us out ? that I am convinced that the option to move us out is dead,” Walsh commented.
“But as we have seen over the years, this option keeps coming up . . . . It’s not permanently out of the question.
“I don’t expect it to come back any time soon ? we have effectively argued against this ? but we always have to be vigilant,” he added.
The media facilities are just a small part of the total design package, which includes a visitors center, encompasses security concerns, could impact traffic, and affects the whole area around the White House, including Lafayette Park and the Ellipse.
According to the National Park Service, planning for the White House and president’s park design began in 1992 and is expected to be completed over four years. By the fall, a draft plan and environmental impact statement are expected to be available for public review, with a final plan slated for release in the spring of 1996.
The final plan, the Park Service stated, will be “the first comprehensive plan for the property since its establishment as the seat of executive government for the United States in 1791.”