White House, Press Corps Duke It Out Over Event Access

The relationship between the Obama Administration and the press corps is rocky. NPR's Arun Rath talks to correspondent David Folkenflik about why the corps lodged a formal complaint — over astronauts.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The relationship between the Obama Administration and the White House Press Corps has been rocky for a while now. And the tension came to a boil this week over the issue of astronauts. The professional group representing the reporters has lodged a formal protest for being shut-out, once again, of a meeting of public interest. In this case involving the astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on the 45th anniversary of the moon landing.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from our studios in New York City. And, David, tell us what's happening in this instance and why reporters say it matters.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, the meeting with the astronauts and the president was closed to the press, you know - no videographers there for the networks to capture some tape, none of that. And this seemed like the latest in the series of slights. You could hear the frustration boil over. In one of the recent briefings, you can hear ABC's John Karl talking with the new White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KARL: I mean, the president's schedule couldn't he had been maybe five minutes later for the fundraiser out it Seattle? He really couldn't accommodate a few minutes for open coverage of this?

JOSH EARNEST: Not this time, John.

KARL: Let me ask you - 'cause I find that explanation, frankly, a little hard to believe given that, you know, this is such a small amount of time.

FOLKENFLIK: So right there, you're just capturing a moment which their saying we don't believe you. And they don't believe the White House, in part, because they been shut out of meetings with major world leaders, with donors, with celebrities, you know, on a golfing outing with Tiger Woods - all these things. The president's being kept at bay from them to be able capture the moment and get a feel for it to add some texture for readers and viewers and listeners, but also kept at bay from them asking occasionally inconvenient questions to the president about issues that might bubble up.

RATH: David, we all remember reporters complaining a lot about lack of access to the George W. Bush White House. And against that backdrop, Candidate Obama pledged to run the transparent administration in American history. And they're still saying that's what they're doing. What would the White House Press Corps say?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the White House Press Corps, in its more polite moments, might say that was disingenuous - might call it a little more severe after a drink or two. But this is a relationship that's a little fraught. The Obama administration has made some strides in terms of getting information out under the Freedom Of Information Act, but it's happening against a backdrop, you know, that's really more severe, you know. The Obama Administration in the guise of the Justice Department has gone after the records of a half dozen journalists, with significant consequences, you know. A New York Times reporter James Risen faces the prospect of going to jail for refusing to tell the Justice Department who his sources were on a key story involving, essentially, espionage efforts against the Iranians.

And these are severe consequences. Journalists see that as completely adversarial. The Obama White House says, look, we're are merely trying to pinpoint sources of national security information leaks. And on the other hand, it says we get more information out than ever through social media platforms. We don't need reporters to do this in every instance.

RATH: Well, leaving aside, you know, investigative reporters like James Risen, for the White House Press Corps, not to be rude about it, but do they really break news in their coverage? I mean, how seriously should we be concerned?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, and I think this is part of the gamble the White House is making. For a lot of Americans, you know, they think of the White House Press Corps as the guys who get up on their back feet and preen for the cameras. And there's certainly an element of that kind of performance that goes on. You see reporter after reporter for television network, for example, often asking versions of the same questions to make sure that their take, their voice, can get on their network that night. And I think that does tend to diminish from the notion that what's happening there is the most serious of journalism. I think enterprise reporting that's most worthwhile often happens well away from that briefing center. That said, I think the principle of White House officials having to be held to account, on the record, on tape for policies, for stances taken on behalf of the American people, that principle is one that the White House reporters are trying to make a stand on oten not with that much success.

RATH: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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