White House Correspondents Want No Role in Credentialing

By: Joe Strupp

The White House Correspondents Association announced Monday that it would not seek changes to the White House press-credentialing process, despite complaints from several members that controversial former reporter James Guckert had been able to gain the same access as any other reporter for two years.

Ron Hutcheson, WHCA president and a Knight Ridder White House correspondent, said the decision occurred during Monday’s meeting of the WHCA board. It was the first such meeting of the board since Guckert, who uses the name Jeff Gannon, drew attention with his partisan questions and questionable past.

“The board felt like none of us were happy about Gannon being in the briefing room, but we all view it as the price we pay for a system that favors inclusion over keeping someone out,” Hutcheson told E&P. “While not perfect, [the current system] is geared toward letting people in.”

When asked if his view would change in the event that there was a sharp increase in the distribution of day passes for bloggers, writers affiliated with obscure Web sites, and those with obvious partisan leanings, like Guckert, Hutcheson said such a scenario could require a new look. “I do have that concern that we could end up there,” he said. “I’ll never say never. But I have no idea what the tipping point would be.”

He also added that none of the board members at the meeting believed that Guckert was “a plant” by the Bush administration to insert “softball” questions into the daily briefings.

The decision effectively keeps the WHCA out of the credentialing process following talk during the past month that the 300-member group might take more of a role in deciding who gets press credentials. Currently, the Standing Committee of Correspondents on Capitol Hill, a committee of congressional reporters, has sole authority over who gets press passes there. But all White House press passes are distributed by the White House Press Office with no WHCA involvement.

During a two-hour board meeting Monday, in which about half the time was spent on White House credentialing issues, the WHCA leadership discussed the problems related to Guckert’s access, but chose to keep the status quo.

“Since 1914, the White House Correspondents? Association has operated independently of the White House and the White House credentialing process. We intend for the White House Correspondents? Association to remain independent of that process,” he board said in a statement. “Consistent with the First Amendment, the White House Correspondents? Association stands for inclusiveness in the credentialing process so that the White House remains accessible to all journalists. We hope that individual episodes do not obscure the broader principles of a fair and evenhanded credentialing process that serves the goal of free and full exchange of information.”

WHCA board member Mike Allen, a Washington Post reporter, told E&P: “We debated it bluntly for quite a bit more than an hour. There was a strong consensus that the current system generally works and that the association favors inclusion. That?s no sign of support for ?Gannon.? It?s a recognition that an individual case is no reason to change your principles.?

Guckert, 47, had obtained regular access to the White House briefings since February 2003, first as a representative of GOPUSA.com, a right-wing Web site with ties to the Texas Republican Party, then as a reporter for Talon News, a GOPUSA.com offshoot.

After being turned down last year for a congressional press pass, which is a requirement for a permanent White House “hard pass,” which allows regular access to press briefings, Guckert continued to obtain daily passes, which do not require the extensive background checks of a hard pass, at the White House through early this year.

He gained notice in January when he asked President Bush what many considered a partisan question at a Jan. 26 press conference.

Once it was revealed that he had been using a pseudonym while at the White House, had ties to several pornographic Web sites, and allegedly had worked as a prostitute, Guckert resigned from Talon News several weeks ago, prompting widespread criticism of the White House press credential policy. Last week Talon News shut down, but with plans to revamp its operation and re-launch.

During the recent uproar over Guckert and White House press-credential policies, WHCA leaders met with Press Secretary Scott McClellan, who had said he was not involved in press pass distribution — and did not want to be — but would be glad to listen to WHCA concerns.

McClellan could not be reached for comment Monday.

During Monday’s WHCA board meeting, several members hinted that they were troubled by the fact that Guckert could obtain regular access to press events without a hard pass. “The issue was raised of whether the day pass was an end run around permanent credentials,” said Mark Smith, an AP Radio reporter and WHCA board member. “But the board decided not to take any particular action on it.”

Hutcheson said he also had concerns about the extensive use of a day pass. “There is some discomfort with a system that lets people who can?t get a hard pass in with daily passes with some regularity,” Hutcheson told E&P. “The whole reason that the daily pass system was set up was that hard passes have some exclusivity to them.”

He also said the board discussed how problems could arise if the White House appeared to be limiting press access based on a reporter’s ideology. “If we felt that the White House was applying an ideological screen, we would fight like hell,” Hutcheson said. “But we don’t see that happening at all.”

“The bottom line is that none of us are comfortable with Jeff Gannon posing as a journalist,” Hutcheson stated. “But none of us are comfortable with changing the system to keep him out.”

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