“I hope to hold this administration accountable as much as the media holds the Trump administration accountable,” said Bolling.
Trump showered his allies in the conservative media with VIP treatment, rewarded them with interviews and access, pocketed their books and programs, and in some cases sought their advice on everything from immigration policy to military airstrikes. But they are out now – and want to draw blood from the new government.
This presents a number of challenges for the Biden team, which is trying to learn from the Obama years. Back then, it was Fox News who fired most of the Spitballs at a newly elected Democratic President – best embodied by Glenn Beck and his board. But now there are a multitude of outlets wanting to occupy this space, from mainstream law (Sinclair and the Daily Caller) to the conspiratorial fringe (OAN and Gateway Pundit). And that poses new and uncomfortable problems for a White House that promises to restore normal relations with a press that has become far from normal, even for seasoned hands like press secretary Jen Psaki.
White House officials promise a profound change in how the White House interacts with the press. Biden’s team plans, in consultation with the WHCA, to set clear criteria for qualifying for a so-called “hard pass” for access to the site, officials told POLITICO. If current passport holders in the media continue to meet the criteria set with the Association of Correspondents, they will still have hard passports.
White House officials stressed they would take no steps to ban pro-Trump votes from the White House. For example, they do not expect to proactively withdraw hard passports from journalists they brought under Trump. And they seem interested in not going the same path the White House Obama took when it took steps to freeze Fox, but rather retreating amid the backlash of other networks. Biden’s helpers also promised not to allow the outlets to use the briefings to spread unfounded conspiracies.
“We expect reporters covering the White House to act in good faith and tell their audiences the truth, and this White House will do the same. We are promoting this mutual understanding, ”said T.J. Ducklo, the Assistant Secretary of the White House. “Organizations or individuals who use conspiracy theories, propaganda and lies to spread disinformation will not be tolerated, and we will work with the WHCA to decide how to deal with these instances in the future.”
Coronavirus guidelines have severely restricted access to the meeting room and restricted crowded meetings that the full range of networks on the right could attend. Currently only 14 of the 49 seats in the meeting room are occupied. The WHCA and White House both want to expand this but have no immediate plans to do so as Covid is raging. While the WHCA has moved in the past few days to drive more outlets through the briefings, Trump-backed hosts and right-wing reporters who failed to get into the room last week argue that the current group of attendees are gentle on Biden.
“It was an embarrassment for the press corps,” said Sean Spicer, the host of Spicer & Co at Newsmax and Trump’s former White House press secretary.
As evidence of his claim, Spicer, who like Bolling has filed documents to join the WHCA, pointed to questions about the Air Force One color scheme and Biden’s inaugural mood. Despite all of his complaints, Spicer praised Psaki’s performance, which several outlets rated positively compared to his early outings – now remembered for insisting on Trump’s record housewarming crowd.
“She did a really good job in her role and to some extent I’m a little jealous,” Spicer admitted.
White House officials are sensitive to the argument that the press is making Biden easier. They also stress that they aren’t worried about facing pro-Trump hosts, including Spicer.
“Jen answered questions from literal Russian propaganda agencies when she was spokeswoman for the State Department,” retorted a White House adviser. “She’s not scared of former Dancing with the Stars finalist Sean Spicer.”
For the White House, the more difficult challenge could be to fight its own way into a closed, right-wing ecosystem.
Tim Miller, a Trump critic and longtime GOP media representative, suggested that the Biden team find some outlets and reporters in “MAGA-Medien” and hire them on White House terms. “Some of these people are access traders, others just aren’t that savvy, and going into the lion’s den and making a case has value,” he said.
“The downside to this is that you’re legitimizing some of these outlets that have behaved horribly, and they’ll obviously go out of their way to smear Biden for the rest of the time,” Miller said. “But there are no easy answers and I think the compromise will benefit Biden.”
Among the reporters Biden’s team seems interested in is Fox News’s Peter Doocy, who ranked conservative personalities and media managers as the sole standout for his questions last week. On Thursday, Doocy asked Psaki why the Biden family weren’t masked all the time during an inauguration day photo shoot at the Lincoln Memorial, since Biden had signed an order mandating masks on federal properties and stressed the importance of good behavior to model.
Psaki said the Bidens are celebrating a historic day and are taking numerous precautionary measures. They referred to Doocy as “Steve”, his father and co-host of “Fox and Friends”.
The younger Doocy’s approach was anticipated by Biden’s White House team. During the campaign, his questions repeatedly centered on Biden’s adult son Hunter and allegations about his overseas business and personal life. At a Biden transition event last month, Doocy investigated the then-elected president to see if he still believed reports of Jäger’s emails and his laptop were Russian disinformation.
Biden said he did and promised that his Justice Department would act independently.
“God loves you, man! You’re a one-horse pony, ”he added to Doocy’s interest in Hunter, fiddling with the one-trick pony cliché.
However, Biden’s campaign worked with Doocy during the campaign. Advisors identified Fox News as a valuable part of the president’s messaging strategy. Top team members, including Kate Bedingfield, who is now running the White House communications operation, appeared on Fox’s radio waves. Just like Pete Buttigieg, a top replacement.
Big ad purchases were also made on Fox and its website with the Biden campaign. They focused on an audience that Fox turned on for the news, not presenters like Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, whom they effectively viewed as Trump’s replacements.
The Biden team believed they could sell its bipartisan talk at Fox – a belief that branches like OAN and Newsmax did not, several advisors said.
“If you are leaving Fox News to view these networks, you are indicating that Fox News is too moderate for you,” said a senior advisor to Biden. “We thought there were people watching Fox News and there were voters who could support Biden.”
Now that Biden’s team is in the White House, it may be harder to ignore the other networks that are farther to the right of Fox. Newsmax, the proudly conservative outlet of Trump buddy Chris Ruddy, has a seat in the meeting room and will soon appear in the rotation.
“We’ve always followed the rules. We respect the President and appreciate being a member of the White House Correspondents Association,” said Brian Peterson, senior vice president at Newsmax, referring to her White House correspondent Emerald Robinson. Peterson also noted that Newsmax had a boardroom “and was treated well” during the Obama years.
Then there is the question of the OAN, whose White House correspondent traveled to Ukraine with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to film a series promoting unsubstantiated conspiracy theories in defense of Trump during his first impeachment.
In the briefing room, OAN’s Chanel Rion was seen as a lifeline for Trump and officials when they came under tough questioning. She once asked Trump, who called Covid-19 a “Chinese virus” because of its origin, whether he thought it was racist to call the kitchen “Chinese food”.
Last spring, the correspondents association banned the OAN from rotating after Rion twice violated social distancing rules. OAN continued to go to the White House as guests of Trump officials. The Association of Correspondents then moved from his job in the White House. An OAN executive did not respond to requests for comment on their approach to covering President Biden.
In the past few days, the Association of Correspondents has informed almost 20 other sales outlets that they will be put on the rotation for reporting. The list includes Bollings Sinclair as well as Breitbart, the far-right publication that the past few months have been focusing on intensely allegedly fraudulent Choose and trumps legal campaign the choice to overthrow.
Elizabeth Moore, an executive with the Breitbart News Network, said the company’s reporters look forward to covering the Biden White House “just like we do – accurate, comprehensive, with an eye to storylines common to our tens of thousands It resonates with millions of readers and listeners and viewers who rely on us for the facts. “
WHCA officials did not comment on the pending applications, although others outside the organization said it was not customary for anchors and hosts who do not regularly personally cover the White House to receive full memberships.
Spicer said he originally applied to get a better feel for the insides on the “other side” – “to see how the sausage is made”. He has since had issues with the WHCA, which under Trump had limited seating to agree to the new coronavirus safety rules proposed by Biden staff that limit the number of people on the premises to 80 and indoors to half that .
“WHCA went along with his idea of restricting access,” said Spicer.
When asked if he would consider running for a seat on the board, Spicer said he just hadn’t thought about it. But he didn’t rule it out.