Reporters to Meet with White House on Credentialing

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By: Joe Strupp

Leaders of the White House Correspondents’ Association plan to meet with President Bush’s press secretary tomorrow to discuss tightening the White House press-credentialing process. The meeting follows the recent uproar over James Guckert, a former White House reporter for the GOP-linked Talon News, who had used the name Jeff Gannon and drawn criticism for asking partisan questions.

Among the potential changes to the credentialing system: tighter restrictions on who can receive daily press passes, such as those Guckert had obtained; and a more active role by the WHCA in approving requests or credentials, which are now handed out solely by the White House Press Office.

“I can see arguments for a more aggressive credentialing process and for the correspondents playing more of a role,” said Mark Smith, WHCA vice president and a reporter for Associated Press Radio. “And I can see arguments against it.”

Smith requested the meeting with Press Secretary Scott McClellan after McClellan mentioned last week during a press briefing that he would be open to discussing the process with White House reporters after the recent concerns surrounding Gannon, who resigned from Talon News last Wednesday.

“I think it is part of their role to address the matter,” McClellan told E&P today, referring to the WHCA. “There are a lot of issues that are good to talk about with the correspondents.”

Ron Hutcheson, WHCA president and a Knight Ridder reporter, said five members of the WHCA board will meet with McClellan tomorrow. He also said the entire nine-member board will consider the credentialing issue during its regular meeting on Feb. 28.

“The consensus is that we should go in there [with McClellan] and get all the information we can on this and see if we can’t take what we’ve learned and develop a unified position on the board of what to do about this,” Hutcheson told E&P. “Scott appears to be very open to discussing this. It is a very hard thing to do, to determine who is a journalist and who isn’t.”

Hutcheson added that perhaps the White House should require that anyone seeking a day pass first obtain a Capitol Hill press pass, which is distributed by the Standing Committee of Correspondents, a group of congressional reporters. “That is the most recognized credential in Washington, and, up there, journalists have already taken on the job of saying who’s in, who’s out,” Hutcheson said.

Right now, reporters who want a White House “hard pass,” which allows them to enter and leave on an ongoing basis, are required to first obtain a congressional press pass. But those who seek a daily press pass to the White House do not need a congressional pass. Guckert had been denied a congressional pass last year after the standing committee determined that Talon News was not a legitimate news organization.

Guckert was still able to obtain a daily press pass by applying each day and giving his name, address, and social security number.

Hucheson said he would not be in favor of the WHCA playing a role similar to the congressional press corps’ in distributing White House press passes. “I don’t want us to be saying as an association who gets in,” he added. “But it is something we should be looking at. The congressional credential is a mark of legitimacy.”

Hutcheson said he was hesitant to start barring reporters from the White House unfairly. “My overarching view is that we should be advocates for getting people in the briefing room, not keep them out,” he said. “But [the briefings] are an opportunity to get information, not make political statements.”

As for Guckert, Hutcheson said Talon News’ link to a political party definitely “calls into question his legitimacy as a journalist.” But he also argued that reports that Guckert had helped set up several sex Web sites should have no bearing on his access to the president.

“Too much is being made out of it,” Hutcheson said. “You should take out the porn connection. That has nothing to do with anything. Playboy has naked women, but they have done some damn good journalism. It is the journalistic endeavor that should be looked at.”

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