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This is reprinted from the Detroit Free Press in an opinion piece running September 2, 2018.
The White House beat makes reporters into household names. But too many show off with gotcha questions and preening for the camera.
Parts of the press are under fire again for their use of anonymous sourcing, particularly sources that later backtrack on their statements.
When the opportunity presented itself to work as a White House correspondent, I was elated. Unfortunately, during my time in the briefing room, I witnessed the withering of a press corps that I once aspired to join.
Of course, there are those who I admire greatly, who cover the White House with fairness and without bias, and a handful I call friends. But for a sizable minority, the White House briefing room was about theater and making great television, not about journalism. It was a room to elbow one’s peers and show off one’s ability to ask “gotcha” questions. Additionally, it was a priority to get oneself in an all-important “cross shot” — meaning the cameras needed to capture the reporter asking the question, not just the press secretary answering.
Inside the White House press briefing room
Only asking a question when you’re called on is standard protocol in plenty of press conferences; it was certainly a reasonable standard set in the briefing room. That is, until one reporter decided to interrupt, shout freely and criticize the administration mid-briefing. I thought for sure he would be excoriated for the outburst by the press post-briefing; perhaps even labeled a sexist in light of the #MeToo movement. Instead, he was rewarded with a cable news contract.
In the briefing room, all 49 seats are assigned by the White House Correspondents’ Association. I didn’t have one. When reporters didn’t show, those of us relegated to the aisles would work to grab an empty seat.
Before I got pregnant, it didn’t make much of a difference. But when I became pregnant, I agonized over attending the briefings because I worried I wouldn’t be able to find an empty seat. A precious few graciously offered their seats, and I often declined in an effort to try and not be that person who constantly needs a seat, but at times it was greatly appreciated.
One especially memorable day, at nearly nine months pregnant, I was exhausted from standing as we all waited for the late briefing to start. I rotated and balanced myself with all the grace I could muster, resting on the armrest of the very back row. My back brushed up against a reporter comfortably sitting in his seat. He seemed annoyed that I was crowding his space. I was annoyed that he didn’t have any manners to offer his seat to a pregnant woman. I snapped and tweeted my frustration in a fit of fury.
Blake Burman, a corespondent with FOX Business Network, saw the tweet and quickly got someone to move out of a seat who wasn’t assigned to it anyway. A few reached out after apologizing that they didn’t notice I needed a seat. It was the show of kindness I needed, but my feelings about the room and many in of the people in it were dwindling.
Reporters seeking celebrity status
It’s worth noting that being denied a seat wasn’t the real issue here. It was the fact that giving up one’s seat might mean giving up one’s chance to be seen and make news, not necessarily report it.
While on maternity leave, I decided to take a night away and attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. I left before Michelle Wolf’s monologue to attend an after-party. There, I found myself next to two cable news stars. One, a White House reporter, was concerned he couldn’t get in to a particular after-party because he wasn’t on the list. The other, shouting over the music, suggested that of course he could because of his performances in the briefing room.
The exchange underscored what it means to be a White House correspondent today: This beat makes you a star.
The next day, I heard the reports on Wolf’s offensive monologue. The dinner, much like the briefings, had morphed into a spectacle unto itself: to shock, offend and make noise. And while I support the right to make offensive noise, just as I support a free press, it felt inappropriate to marry the two under the facade of celebrating the free press.
I simply could not return to the White House press corps upon the completion of my leave. Instead of reporting on the story, the press corps had become the story; taking on a life of their own, with an “us versus them” mentality that felt inappropriate, excessive and charged with bias. I wanted to report on history in the making, never make myself a part of the story.
However you feel about the current administration, remember this: The people who are reporting on it are just that — people. There is no official test of morals, integrity, or neutrality to get a seat in that room. The appeal of fame, the power of ego and the allure of celebrity can affect any one of us, even those of the fourth estate.
Ronica Cleary is a Republican strategist and former White House correspondent for Fox 5 DC. Follow her on Twitter @RonicaCleary.