White House selectively blocks media outlets
from briefing with Spicer
By HADAS GOLD
02/24/17 02:31 PM EST
Updated 02/24/17 04:43 PM EST
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The White House on Friday blocked a number of media outlets, including CNN and POLITICO, from an off-camera briefing with press secretary Sean Spicer, while allowing in a select group of journalists that included many conservative outlets.
The White House had earlier planned on having an on-camera gaggle with Spicer in the briefing room, but the administration later in the day changed it to a restricted off-camera gaggle in Spicer’s office.
The shift — a notable break from protocol — came as the White House is trying to contain fallout from reports that chief of staff Reince Priebus pressured the FBI to shoot down articles about frequent contact between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence officials.
Instead of hosting the typical briefing on camera in the briefing room — which in the first month has been regularly broadcast live on the major cable networks — the White House invited the pool, which on Friday consisted of Hearst Newspapers and CBS, into Spicer’s office, along with a select group of other outlets. Because of the presence of the pool, the information was still shared with the entire White House press corps.
In addition to CBS and Hearst, the White House invited NBC, Fox, ABC, One America News Network, The Wall Street Journal, McClatchy, Breitbart and Washington Times reporters to attend. Reporters from outlets including the BBC, CNN, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and POLITICO were not permitted.
In the past, White House press secretaries would sometimes host small gaggles with “expanded pools.” But the selective invitation of conservative outlets, some of whom have been more than overtly friendly to the Trump administration, is unprecedented.
White House Correspondents Association President Jeff Mason condemned the White House’s actions in a statement.
"The WHCA board is protesting strongly against how today's gaggle is being handled by the White House,” Mason said. "We encourage the organizations that were allowed in to share the material with others in the press corps who were not. The board will be discussing this further with White House staff."
White House Principal deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders downplayed the controversy. "We invited the pool so everyone was represented. We decided to add a couple of additional people beyond the pool. Nothing more than that," she said.
Reporters from The Associated Press and Time were invited to attend, but out of solidarity chose to sit the meeting out. That move garnered praise online and via the internal White House pool email list.
"Congratulations to Time and AP for not attending today's gaggle in protest,” New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker wrote to the White House press corps email list.
News organization leaders responded to the White House's move with varying levels of outrage on Friday afternoon.
The Committee to Protect Journalists and the National Press Club both condemned it, as did two outlets whose reporters did sit in on the gaggle, The Wall Street Journal and McClatchy. Both publications indicated that they did not initially realize that Spicer was barring other outlets from the briefing and pledged to boycott similar arrangements in the future.
"The Wall Street Journal strongly objects to the White House's decision to bar certain media outlets from today's gaggle," the paper said. "Had we known at the time, we would not have participated and we will not participate in such closed briefings in the future."
Kristin Roberts, McClatchy Washington's executive editor, similarly said: "McClatchy opposes any effort by the White House to ban news organizations from coverage. Had we known that news organizations were banned from today's gaggle, we would not have participated. We will not participate again if that practice continues."
Trump accuses media of making up sourcesEditors from publications whose reporters did not attend the briefing objected to the arrangement, sometimes with strong words. Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, one of outlets excluded on Friday, characterized the administration’s move as unprecedented.
“Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties,” he said in a statement. “We strongly protest the exclusion of The New York Times and the other news organizations. Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest.”
The Washington Post's executive editor, Marty Baron, described the White House's decision to close off the briefing from some outlets as "appalling" and accused the administration of traveling down "an undemocratic path." The Post, Baron added, is "currently evaluating what our response will be if this sort of thing happens again.”
POLITICO editors Carrie Budoff Brown and John Harris, meanwhile, told staffers in a memo that they had reached out to the White House about the incident. They added that the publication plans to "very vigorously assert and defend an independent media’s right to cover the institution of the Presidency."
"Selectively excluding news organizations from White House briefings is misguided and our expectation is that this action will not be repeated," they said.
Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, the outlet Trump previously ripped as a “failing pile of garbage,” also said the White House’s actions would not deter their reporting. CNN and the Associated Press also both registered their objections.
Fox News anchor Bret Baier, whose network did attend the briefing, said on Twitter that White House gaggles "should be open to all credentialed" organizations, and referenced a time when CNN and the New York Times stood with Fox News when the Obama administration tried to exclude them.
In audio of the gaggle shared with the entire White House press corps by the radio pooler, Spicer denied that CNN and the New York Times had been denied access to the briefing because the White House is unhappy with their coverage. He argued the change to the briefing was made on Friday so as not to crowd out President Donald Trump’s speech at CPAC earlier that day.
“The president spoke today. As you know, we don't generally do, we haven't done briefings when the president's had a major event or an event with a world leader,” Spicer said. “We put it on the schedule yesterday that we were just going to gaggle, and I mean this is something that we talked about with the correspondents’ association, about making sure that we have daily contact with you guys.”
He added, “You know, obviously the president gave a very powerful speech today and our job is to make sure that we're responsive to folks in the media. We're here all day. We've got a big staff and we want to make sure we answer your questions. We don't need to do everything on camera every day.”
Earlier on Friday, senior administration officials pushed back against a report by CNN that Priebus asked the FBI to deny a New York Times report about campaign contacts with Russia, but the FBI declined. However, the officials confirmed that Priebus had indeed asked an FBI official about publicizing the agency’s view on The New York Times report.
In the morning background briefing, an official laid out a timeline of the communication between Priebus and the FBI, but the account from the White House has changed over the past 24 hours.
On the record, Spicer rebuked reporters saying, “What you guys have done is indefensible and inaccurate.” He also said it would have been “insane” for Priebus to not attempt to persuade the FBI to denounce a story that FBI Assistant Director Andrew McCabe called BS.
“What sane person would not want to set the record straight?” Spicer said.
Trump started the day with a tweet blasting the FBI for being unable to stop leakers.
“The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “They can't even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. FIND NOW.”
Cristiano Lima and Madeline Conway contributed to this report.
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