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The White House press corps is a group of about 250 journalists whose job is to write about, broadcast and photograph the activities and policy decisions made by the president of the United States and his administration. The White House press corps is comprised of print and digital reporters, radio and television journalists, and photographers and videographers employed by competing news organizations.
What makes the journalists in the White House press corps unique among political beat reporters is their physical proximity to the president of the United States, the most powerful elected official in the free world, and his administration. Members of the White House press corps travel with the president and are hired to follow his every move.
The job of White House correspondent is considered to be among the most prestigious positions in political journalism because, as one writer put it, they work "in a town where proximity to power is everything, where grown men and women would forsake a football field size suite of offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for a shared cubicle in a bullpen in the West Wing."
The First White House Correspondents
The first journalist considered to be a White House correspondent was William “Fatty” Price, who was trying out for a job at the Washington Evening Star. Price, whose 300-pound frame earned him the nickname, was directed to go to the White House to find a story in President Grover Cleveland's administration in 1896.
Price made a habit of stationing himself outside the North Portico, where White House visitors couldn't escape his questions. Price got the job and used the material he gathered to write a column called “At the White House.” Other newspapers took notice, according to W. Dale Nelson, a former Associated Press reporter and author of “Who Speaks For the President?: The White House Press Secretary from Cleveland to Clinton.” Wrote Nelson: “Competitors quickly caught on, and the White House became a news beat.”
The first reporters in the White House press corps worked sources from the outside in, loitering on the White House grounds. But they insinuated themselves into the president's residence in the early 1900s, working over a single table in President Theodore Roosevelt's White House. In a 1996 report, The White House Beat at the Century Mark, Martha Joynt Kumar wrote for Towson State University and The Center for Political Leadership and Participation at the University of Maryland:
"The table was perched outside of the office of the President's secretary, who briefed reporters on a daily basis. With their own observed territory, reporters established a property claim in the White House. From that point forward, reporters had space they could call their own. The value of their space is found in its propinquity to the President and to his Private Secretary. They were outside the Private Secretary's office and a short walk down the hall from where the President had his office."
Members of the White House press corps eventually won their own press room in the White House. They occupy a space in the West Wing to this day and are organized in the White House Correspondents' Association.
Why Correspondents Get to Work in the White House
There are three key developments that made journalists a permanent presence in the White House, according to Kumar.
- The precedents set in coverage of specific events including the death of President James Garfield and as the constant presence of reporters on presidential trips. "Presidents and their White House staffs got used to having reporters hanging around and, finally, let them have some inside work space," she wrote.
- Developments in the news business. "News organizations gradually came to view the President and his White House as subjects of continuing interest to their readers," Kumar wrote.
- Heightened public awareness of presidential power as a force in our national political system. "The public developed an interest in presidents at a time when the chief executive was called upon to provide direction in domestic and foreign policy on a more routine basis than had previously been the case," Kumar wrote.
The journalists assigned to cover the president are stationed in a dedicated “press room” located in the West Wing of the president's residence. The journalists meet almost daily with the president's press secretary in the James S. Brady Briefing Room, which is named for the press secretary to President Ronald Reagan.
Role in Democracy
The journalists who made up the White House press corps in its early years had far more access to the president than the reporters of today. In the early 1900s, it was not uncommon for news reporters to gather around the desk of the president and ask questions in rapid-fire succession. The sessions were unscripted and unrehearsed, and therefore often yielded actual news. Those journalists provided an objective, unvarnished first draft of history and an up-close account of the president's every move.
Reporters working in the White House today have far less access to the president and his administration and are presented with little information by the president's press secretary. "Daily exchanges between the president and reporters - once a staple of the beat - have almost been eliminated," the Columbia Journalism Review reported in 2016.
Veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh told the publication: “I've never seen the White House press corps so weak. It looks like they are all angling for invitations to a White House dinner.” Indeed, the prestige of the White House press corps has been diminished over the decades, its reporters seen as accepting spoonfed information. This is an unfair assessment; modern presidents have worked to obstruct journalists from gathering information.
Relationship With the President
The criticism that members of the White House press corps are too cozy with the president is not a new one; it most surfaces under Democratic administrations because members of the media are often seen as being liberal. That the White House Correspondents' Association holds an annual dinner attended by U.S. presidents does not help matters.
Still, the relationship between almost every modern president and the White House press corps has been rocky. The stories of intimidation perpetrated by presidential administrations on journalists are legendary - from Richard Nixon's ban on reporters who wrote unflattering stories about him, to Barack Obama's crackdown on leaks and threats on reporters who didn't cooperate, to George W. Bush's statement that the media claim they didn't represent America and his use of executive privilege to hide information from the press. Even Donald Trump has threatened to kick reporters out of the press room, at the beginning of his term. His administration considered the media “the opposition party."
To date, no president has tossed the press out of the White House, perhaps out of deference to the age-old strategy of keeping friends close - and perceived enemies closer.
- The Fascinating History of the White House Press Room: Town & Country
- The President, the Press and Proximity: White House Historical Association
- The Press Has Always Been a Guest in the President's Home: Longreads
- History of the White House Correspondents' Association: White House Correspondents' Association
- The White House Beat at the Century Mark: Martha Joynt Kumar
- Do We Need a White House Press Corps?: Columbia Journalism Review