- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Today, after 50 years of covering the White House, Hearst newspapers columnist Helen Thomas announced her retirement after the widespread outrage that followed the release of a video in which she says that Jews in Israel should "go back to Germany and Poland." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Thomas’s remarks "offensive and reprehensible." But if the 89-year-old Thomas had insisted on remaining, could the White House have forced her out of the press corps?
Probably not. To get accredited for the White House, a reporter first needs to be approved for a congressional press pass by the Standing Committee of Correspondents, elected by accredited reporters. (A notable exception to this rule was Jeff Gannon of the conservative website Talon News, who was repeatedly allowed to ask — usually friendly — questions during the George W. Bush administration’s White House press briefings despite never being given a congressional pass. Gannon’s presence in the press room became a minor scandal when liberal bloggers revealed that he had posted X-rated pictures of himself on the Internet and had worked as a gay escort.)
Among other requirements, congressional reporters must demonstrate that they work for a publication whose "principal business is the daily dissemination of original news and opinion of interest to a broad segment of the public" and is "editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government." The White House also requires an additional Secret Service background check. The White House Correspondents‘ Association (WHCA), a professional association of journalists who cover the president, is not involved in the credentialing process, and White House reporters are not required to be WHCA members.
Once you’ve got the pass, you can renew it every year without additional scrutiny. More than 2,000 reporters have "hard passes" to the White House, though the vast majority don’t work out of the building every day and the briefing room seats just 50 people, with standing room for about another 30.
Because administrations generally don’t want to be seen as deciding who is or isn’t a qualified journalist, it’s unheard of for a reporter to be suspended for the quality of his or her reporting or behavior, though there are a few notable cases of reporters being barred for security reasons.
The Nation‘s Robert Sherrill was denied Secret Service clearance during Lyndon Johnson’s administration on the grounds that he posed a physical threat to the president. (He had gotten into a few fistfights with government officials earlier in his career.) Sherrill went on to cover the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations as the Nation’s White House correspondent despite being barred from the building. Even after the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged Sherrill’s barring in federal court, he didn’t bother to get a pass, saying he had better things to do than "sitting around for some dumb [expletive] to give a press conference."
Another reporter who fell afoul of White House security rules was Trude Feldman, a longtime freelancer for a number of mostly Jewish newspapers who covered every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. Feldman was famous for her softball interview style — she irritated other correspondents by scoring a rare interview with Bill Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and asking him such probing questions as, "How will you strive to be a better president as well as a global leader?" Feldman was suspended from the White House for 90 days in 2001 after security cameras caught her rifling through a press aide’s desk late at night. Feldman returned, eventually retiring in 2007.
The White House may frown on trespassing, but assaulting fellow reporters is apparently tolerated. Notorious press room eccentric Naomi Nover inherited a hard pass from her husband, a former Denver Post reporter, in 1973 and paid her own way on nearly every presidential trip abroad until her death in 1995 despite never actually doing any reporting. Once, during the Carter administration, she began swinging her handbag at Baltimore Sun correspondent Carl Leubsdorf, whom she thought had been laughing at her. Some years later, the 4’11” Nover whacked Los Angeles Times photographer Bernie Boston, who was blocking her view of Ronald Reagan and Mother Theresa, with an umbrella.
Other dubious press corps veterans include Baltimore radio host Les Kinsolving, who covers the White House for the conspiratorially minded website WorldNetDaily. On the rare occasions when he gets called on, Kinsolving is known for launching into opinionated diatribes that only occasionally take the form of questions. Lately he has become fixated on the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Kinsolving bills himself on his own website as "one of the few who has the guts to ask probing questions and even providing [sic] comic relief."
Another unusual fixture is Indian journalist Raghubir Goyal, who reports on the White House for the India Globe, a publication whose website contains no content. Goyal is known for asking lengthy questions about India policy, particularly on Kashmir, no matter what else is going on in the world. He became known as "Goyal the Foil" during the Bush administration because of Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s habit of calling on him when facing tough questions from other reporters. Goyal recently raised some eyebrows by asking Gibbs about the Obama administration’s stance on yoga.
Thanks to the White House Correspondents Association
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