August 29, 2022

Here’s a question: Who decides which reporters get to ask questions at the White House?

By Todd Gillman

We get asked a lot about how things work for the press at the White House. Here are some answers.

Q. Who gets to ask questions at White House briefings?

A. The White House press secretary chooses which reporters to call on. By tradition, the Associated Press gets the first question. Correspondents from the TV networks and other large news outlets with assigned seats toward the front typically get called on more regularly. But the press secretary is free to call on anyone, including reporters standing in the aisles or who show up only occasionally. The WHCA has long encouraged press secretaries to “move around the room” to make sure journalists from smaller and specialty outlets get a chance to ask questions. 

See a seating chart for the White House Briefing Room here.

Q. Does the WHCA decide who gets to attend briefings?

A. No. Any journalist can attend the briefings, even if their outlet doesn’t have an assigned seat. Reporters who regularly cover the White House are issued “hard passes” to enter the complex. Others can get a temporary pass through the White House Press Office.

Q: Who issues hard passes and what do they bestow on a journalist? 

The White House Press Office issues hard passes to journalists who regularly cover the White House. These passes allow access to the White House campus, without having to apply for a temporary pass each day. To get a hard pass, journalists must submit an application to the White House Press Office and undergo a background screening by the Secret Service, which protects the President and is responsible for security at the White House. This process can take several months. The hard pass is not required to cover events or press briefings, but since it allows journalists to enter the complex without permission ahead of time, it’s an important convenience for those who regularly cover the White House. When the Trump White House attempted to revoke a journalist’s hard pass, the WHCA advocated directly with the Administration and in federal court, where a judge ultimately deemed the revocation improper and restored the hard pass. 

Q. Who decides where reporters sit?

A. The White House Correspondents’ Association board has been assigning seats since the Reagan administration, when fixed auditorium seats replaced couches and moveable lounge furniture. There are currently 49 seats.

Q. How are seat assignments made?

A. The WHCA board uses a number of criteria. In the most recent update, in December 2021, the WHCA considered an outlet’s long-standing service on the White House beat, and a number of factors intended to ensure that the briefing room “reflects the country it covers,” ideologically, geographically and in other ways. The outlets with the largest reach are at the front of the room, with the Associated Press front row center. 

More here on the evolution of press work space from the White House Historical Association.

Q. What about those rude people at briefings? Can the WHCA kick them out or suspend them?

No. That isn’t the role of the WHCA. The organization doesn’t issue credentials or control who can enter the room. That falls to the White House Press Office and the Secret Service, which conducts security screenings. The James Brady Press Briefing Room is a unique space, located in the people’s house, and the WHCA advocates for journalists of all stripes to have access to try to question the President and the press secretary. 

The WHCA strongly encourages decorum and respect among colleagues from competing outlets, but does not formally police behavior among peers.

Q. What is the pool and who gets to be in it?

A.  The Oval Office can’t possibly fit every reporter and photographer who’d like to be there when the president invites the press to witness a bill signing or meeting with a foreign leader.  Same with the Roosevelt Room and other venues at the White House complex.

So, the pool system evolved to allow a limited number of people to represent the full press corps. On campus at the White House, that’s typically a group of 20 correspondents from wire services, print outlets, TV and radio, along with photojournalists and sound operators.

The print reporter on duty that day files “pool reports” that get distributed by email to the White House press corps and a much larger list controlled by the White House Press Office. Since the Print pool serves the entire press corps, the WHCA reserves membership for outlets that have demonstrated commitment to the beat and to high quality, fact-driven journalism.

Roughly 32 print outlets serve in this in-town pool, so each gets a turn about once a month. TV and radio outlets have smaller rotations. AP, Bloomberg and Reuters have permanent slots in the pool. 

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