The White House Correspondents Association followed up with the White House on my experience the other day, and I now have something of an official explanation of why I was repeatedly denied access to the citizens in the audience at President Obama’s health care speech near Philadelphia. The interference, I am told, was “unintentional and [and the White House] regretted what happened.” (Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton also apologized to me directly, which I appreciated.)
First off, it’s worth noting that what happened struck some reporters who regularly cover the White House as unusual, as evidenced by this exchange in yesterday’s briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:
Q Robert, at the event in Philadelphia yesterday, reporters were prevented from talking to the people. I mean, they set up barriers six feet wide to keep us from the people. Security guards kept –
MR. GIBBS: That was for the benefit of the people. (Laughter.)
Q Pardon me?
MR. GIBBS: I was not on the trip. I don’t know what –
Q We were prevented even after the event, after the President had left, security guards kept reporters from talking to anyone in the room. What does the White House think of that, and will you work to stop that from happening at future events?
MR. GIBBS: I will try to find out more information about the series of events that you’re talking about.
Q Well, wait a minute, you would know that — I mean, that should be standard policy. It’s not standard –
MR. GIBBS: Chuck, I don’t –
Q You don’t want — but I assume you don’t want security preventing — because that’s a pretty serious issue.
MR. GIBBS: Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on. Let me just find out — I don’t know whether that has to do with transportation — I don’t know what that has to do with. I’m certainly, as I just told, willing to look into — willing to look into what surrounded that and what that is –
Q If the reports are true, though, you don’t want –
MR. GIBBS: Well, if the reports are true –
Q — something that’s unacceptable?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Chuck, let me — I know you’ve got a show at 9:00 a.m., and you might want to do a segment on this, but let me just get an answer before we get into a series of –
Q But it is contrary to White House policy, right?
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely, yes.
Here’s the explanation:
Secret Service rules require a barrier between the press and the audience. (Note from KT: This has always been the case, and I imagine the Secret Service has been especially diligent after this incident.) Although both the audience and the reporters have been “swept” by security, the concern is that it can be difficult for them to keep track of who is wandering back and forth. (Note from KT: However, the press is clearly identified by credentials–color-coded ones, which change every day. In this instance, I had a large green tag around my neck that said “White House Press Pool,” my name, my news organization and the date. So it would not have been difficult to identify me as a reporter. In the past, I generally have not had difficulty going in and out of the barrier.)
Even if movement across the barrier is restricted, that is not usually a problem. Reporters can usually reach across the barrier and beckon audience members to come talk to them. But the Pennsylvania event took place in a relatively small room with an unusual configuration. There was an Americans with Disabilities Act wheelchair lane positioned between the audience and the press, so it was not possible to talk to people across the barrier.
As for why I was told that I couldn’t interview people after the event, when the President had departed: Another Secret Service rule requires that even after the President has left the room, reporters are not allowed to cross the barriers as long as he is in the building. In this instance, the President went to another room in the building to meet with people and take photos for about 15 minutes after the event.
I am told that, in the future, the White House advance team will attempt to avoid this kind of problem. Which is really all that matters. This was an issue of my being able to do my job as a journalist. It’s speaks to the difference between between being a reporter and being a stenographer.