White House Press Meeting Yields No Credentialing Changes, Yet

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By: Joe Strupp

Don’t expect major changes to the White House press-credentialing process any time soon.

Following a meeting today between the leadership of the White House Correspondents’ Association and President Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, neither side seemed to be in a hurry to alter the current system, which has drawn criticism amid the recent “Jeff Gannon” scandal.

After a 30-minute sit-down with McClellan, WHCA President Ron Hutcheson said he believed the current system was fine and hesitated to have the correspondents’ association play a bigger role in distributing press passes. “I’m not sure we need to do anything,” Hutcheson told E&P. “I’m not comfortable in passing judgment on who is a journalist and who isn’t. My overriding view is that if I am going to make a mistake, it is going to be on letting people in rather than keeping people out.”

But Hutcheson said the full nine-person WHCA board will consider the matter on Feb. 28, and, if the board members want to seek changes to the process or vote to play a greater role in it, he will not stop them. “The board may feel differently than me,” he added. “We will go back and tell them what are the criteria.”

In addition to McClellan and Hutcheson, the meeting included WHCA vice president Mark Smith of AP Radio and Steve Scully of C-SPAN. Smith said the meeting was aimed at clarifying the current system, not discussing potential changes. “We have not taken any position on it, and [McClellan] did not ask us to do anything,” Smith said. “We asked about what if any guidance we could provide in the future and he offered to listen to our ideas.”

McClellan did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

The meeting followed the recent uproar over James Guckert, a former White House reporter for Talon News, who had used the name Jeff Gannon and drawn criticism for asking partisan questions. He resigned from his job last week after questions arose about why he had gained press access with a fake name and while representing a news agency with ties to the Republican Party.

Although no changes to the system were discussed at the meeting, some WHCA members had said prior to the meeting that a number of potential changes were being considered. Those included 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 for credentials, which are now solely handed out by the White House Press Office.

Currently, two types of press passes are issued. The “hard pass,” which allows reporters regular ongoing access to the White House, and “day passes,” which must be issued each morning and are good only for one day. Hard passes are more difficult to obtain, requiring the reporter to first obtain a Capitol Hill credential, issued by a committee of congressional reporters known as the Standing Committee of Correspondents.

Day passes appear to be available to any reporter who provides his or her name, address, and social security number and the name of his or her news organization, and can pass a basic security check.

Guckert had been denied a congressional press pass last year after the Standing Committee determined that Talon News was not a legitimate news organization. But he was still able to obtain daily White House press passes by applying each day.

Smith requested the meeting with McClellan after the press secretary mentioned last week during a briefing that he would be open to discussing the process with White House reporters after the recent concerns surrounding Guckert.

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

But Hutcheson said the meeting ended up being mostly informational. “The idea was to find out the criteria for day passes and hard passes,” he said. “We didn’t ask about what is considered a legitimate news organization. We didn’t press him on that because we just wanted to find out how they do it now.”

Hutcheson said the group did not want to discuss changes until the entire WHCA board takes up the matter. He had said that perhaps the White House should require that anyone seeking a day pass first obtain a Capitol Hill press pass, which would allow the Standing Committee to pass judgment on a reporter’s legitimacy.

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