Just the Facts

Five Facts on the Relationship Between the Press and the President

By Emma Petasis
November 20, 2018 | Blog

On November 7, following a heated exchange between the president and CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, the White house announced that it had revoked Acosta’s press pass. It marked the latest confrontation and a notable escalation in tactics between a press corps and a president who are often at odds with each other.  Here are five facts on the history of the relationship between the press and the president:

In 1913 Woodrow Wilson became the first president to hold a press conference

While many of President Wilson’s predecessors engaged regularly with the press, Wilson became the first president to hold a formal news conference in March of 1913.  However, Wilson’s conception of a press conference was much different than the ones we see today.  From President Wilson to President Truman, all news conferences were off the record and each president reserved the right to edit quotations after the fact.  It was not until President Eisenhower assumed office that press conferences were regularly conducted on the record.  Other press conference firsts were Eleanor Roosevelt becoming the first First Lady to hold a press conference in 1933 and John F. Kennedy becoming the first president to hold a live televised news conference in 1961.

In 1914 eleven White House reporters banded together to create the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA)

The WHCA, an organization of journalists charged with protecting the best interests of White House correspondents, was formed in 1914, when journalists became alarmed at rumors that the Congressional Standing Committee of Correspondents would be entrusted with choosing the reporters allowed to attend President Wilson’s press conferences.  While the WHCA operates separately from the White House and does not control who is granted passes to the White House, it does determine which reporters sit where during White House press briefings.  There are various levels of membership in the WHCA, ranging from honorary to associate to regular members.  In order to be a regular member an applicant “must be employed on the editorial staff of a newspaper, periodical, wire service, radio, TV, or other news-gathering organization that regularly reports on the White House.”

George Akerson, who was hired by President Herbert Hoover to deal with the press in 1929, is considered to be the first White House press secretary

As the relationship between the press and the president continued to expand, it became necessary for the White House to have a staffer devoted to handling the relationship between the two. Akerson would meet with reporters daily at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m, serving as the White House spokesman as news unfolded throughout the day.  While Akerson did not have the official title of press secretary, he was the first to occupy a full-time position that served solely as a liaision between the president and the press corps.

To access the White House, a reporter must go through an extensive process to receive his or her credentials

The first step in getting a press pass to the White House is being approved for a congressional press pass by the Standing Committee of Correspondents, a five-member group elected by credentialed reporters.  The applicant must show they are from a respectable organization that has no ties to firms that lobby the federal government.  Once the standing committee has approved the application the White House requires an additional Secret Service background check.  While it is rare for reporters to fail these, it has happened on occasion.  The Nation’s Robert Sherrill was denied clearance because it was determined he posed a physical threat to the president due to the numerous fist fights he had gotten into over his time as a reporter.  However, for the majority of reporters who are cleared, they are given what is referred to as a hard pass, which gives them broad access to the White House.

While there is a history of presidents barring news outlets from certain White House events, Jim Acosta is the first reporter to have his hard pass revoked since the WHCA was founded

The press and the presidency have a long and often confrontational history.  President Nixon famously barred The Washington Post from the White House after the newspaper broke news of the Watergate scandal.  While Nixon did not pull their credentials, no reporters from the Post were allowed at any White House social events.  In addition, Presidential candidate Barack Obama was criticized for booting several conservative leaning publications from the plane he was using during his 2008 presidential campaign. However, following a heated exchange between the president and CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, the White house announced that it had revoked Acosta’s hard pass. This marked the first time that a president revoked a reporter’s individual hard pass in the country’s history.  However, after several lawsuits, the White House announced that it had restored Acosta’s access on November 19.

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