BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. For the White House press corps, the Obama presidency was no day at the beach, Access to the president was more restricted than it had ever been under President Bush. It was difficult to sneak a reporter question in at a photo op. In fact, for most of Obama's eight years, it was even hard to have a news photographer at photo ops. Mainly, the images were captured by the official White House photographer and distributed from there.
So, now comes Donald Trump, who takes office with no hint of peeling back the curtain. On the contrary, he’s called the press slime, dishonest, crooked and fake news purveyors. During the campaign, he sometimes banned certain major news organizations altogether. So, now what?
Jeff Mason, the White House correspondent for Reuters, is the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which credentials the White House press corps and press pool. Jeff, welcome to OTM.
JEFF MASON: It’s my pleasure to be here, thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: When the Trump administration suggested that it might be moving the press corps out of the White House, you met with Tromp Press Secretary Sean Spicer and called that unacceptable. Why is it unacceptable and what was Spicer's response?
JEFF MASON: Well, first of all, he was floating the idea of moving the briefing out of the White House press room, and that has been sort of a stalwart symbol of free press for decades and a place where White House reporters gather and ask questions of people like the press secretary, but also other senior advisers and the president himself. And we value that space very much.
Our bigger concern about that was that any sort of move out of the briefing room could be a part of a larger effort that would precipitate moving the White House press corps out of the White House altogether. The good news is they've continued rethinking their plans and his desire now is to hold his first couple of briefings here in the White House briefing room, and we’re supportive of that.
BOB GARFIELD: The White House press corps has come under criticism, including from this program, about the way it conducted business in previous administrations, that, in some ways, had been reduced to stenographers passing on the administration’s pronouncements and positions but hadn't really broken a whole lot of stories, hadn't really penetrated, as a group, the White Houses of the last two administrations. Are you hopeful that that will change under the incoming administration?
JEFF MASON: Well, I disagree with the premise of your question, Bob. I think the White House press corps has done some terrific journalism and will continue to do so and I think will have opportunities to do a lot of terrific journalism under a new administration.
I think that if you look back over the last several decades, you’ll see that journalism that has come from White House reporters and people who cover the White House either full-time or as part of their broader beats have led to massive stories being broken and in this last several years, over things like the Iran deal, over personnel. There’s just a whole host of things.
BOB GARFIELD: President George W. Bush famously talked about avoiding the media filter and had various mechanisms for doing that. The Obama administration really did it by building up its social media operation and being very scrupulous in how it offered one-on-one access to the president, seldom [LAUGHS] to members of the White House press corps, more often to local TV, to certain cable shows and entertainment shows, and so on. Trump clearly likes to be in the spotlight. Do you think that will translate to more, not less, access to the president himself?
JEFF MASON: It’s hard to say. He definitely has used Twitter, as everybody knows, as a way to get his message out and it sounds like he’s going to continue to do that when he’s in the White House. But you are right to say that he’s not the first to use social media. As somebody who’s covered the Obama White House for eight years, I remember us just having to adapt to that and the press corps will adapt to the use of social media by the incoming administration, as well.
BOB GARFIELD: What did you make, as a member of the White House press corps, of the press conference a week ago in which Trump refused to entertain a question from CNN because he was unhappy with a story that CNN reported?
JEFF MASON: I would say that the WHGA is not weighing in on who a president or the president-elect calls on at press conferences. We have a lot of members and not all of our members get called on at those events. But the one thing that I would say, with regard to that particular incident, is I made clear in my meeting with Sean that the White House Correspondents’ Association would object to any efforts to throw out a correspondent from a briefing or a press conference.
BOB GARFIELD: On our program last week, we imagined a scenario where the press corps, once Jim Acosta was shut down, that the press corps should be Spartacus, to ask Acosta's question, instead of taking the opportunity to ask their own, to make the point that you shut down one of us, you shut down all of us. Would you countenance as a press corps the Spartacus approach or anything else in which the press acts in concert in defense of its First Amendment rights?
JEFF MASON: Press corps unity is important on a lot of issues, and that’s something that I've worked on as president of the Association this year. But there are certainly times when unity is difficult because not only are we colleagues, we’re also competitors. I think the question is, at what times is it necessary for unity to take the overarching priority and at what times is it not? And I don’t know exactly the right balance on that. I can tell you that it's hard to achieve [LAUGHS] with a lot of computing news organizations, but we’re working pretty hard at it and I think that that will be beneficial to the press corps as a group going forward in a new administration.
BOB GARFIELD: Jeff, thank you very much.
JEFF MASON: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Jeff Mason, a White House correspondent for Reuters, is the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.