Fin Gomez hadn’t given much thought to it when he picked up a small bottle of hand sanitizer and a mask at the airport in New Delhi. He saw other travelers wearing them and wanted to be cautious. Gomez was returning to Washington, D.C. in late February after covering President Trump in India as a CBS News White House producer. At that time his focus, like the rest of America, wasn’t on coronavirus. It was on the upcoming presidential election.
But things rapidly changed in the weeks following his return to the White House.
“This bigger snowball of a story was happening,” said Gomez. “First it was China, then all of a sudden it was Europe, and Spain, and Italy.”
Today, he wears a mask every day to work. So do the majority of the White House journalists — the ones allowed in the briefing room, that is.
The White House press corps is adjusting to an unprecedented reality. The White House Correspondents Association has had to make necessary changes to the logistics of White House reporting to keep their members safe and healthy. With a fraction of reporters — and voices — in the briefing room, journalists have had to work together to continue informing a public desperate for information. It hasn’t always been a smooth transition. For the first time, some White House reporters are forced to cover the president from their homes.
Others, like Gomez, work 16 to 18 hour days at the White House. Since coronavirus coverage has overtaken all other news, he arrives around 6 a.m. and works until 8 or 9 p.m. as he covers the administration’s response to the virus. His work isn’t over when he gets home. He continues to check data from Johns Hopkins University to stay updated. Even with the health risks posed by working outside his home during the pandemic, Gomez said he believes it’s his obligation as a journalist to cover the story.
“If there's an explosion, 95 percent of that crowd is running away,” he said. “Journalists are running toward it. Not only because we want to know what's going on, but because we have a duty to find out for those who aren't there.”
Then and Now
There are around 150 people from more than 100 news organizations on any given day at the White House: newspaper reporters, photographers, television and radio correspondents, producers, crew members and janitors shuffle in and out of the cramped, dingy press lobby.
“It’s like the bottom of a submarine,” said Gomez. “We’re in these confined places and our work area was the exact opposite, frankly, of the guidelines that were being issued by the government we’re covering.”
As the virus spread Gomez and his colleagues on the WHCA board had to make quick decisions for the safety of the press corps. They implemented strict social distancing guidelines– something never done before in WHCA history.
The decision to limit the number of reporters came after WHCA President and ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl sent an email urging social distancing in the briefing room. After the guidelines fell on deaf ears, the WHCA sent out a statement that they were cutting the number of reporters allowed in the room in half, from 49 assigned seats to 25 — one chair between each person.
The decision of which outlets would receive allocated seats had to be made in less than 24 hours. CBS News White House Radio Correspondent and WHCA President-Elect Steven Portnoy said taking reporters out of the briefing room came “with great regret.”
“On short notice we had to think as carefully as we could of the organizations that had the largest, widest national and global reach,” he said. “We wanted to ensure a degree of viewpoint diversity in the room. We felt that was important.”
Once the decision was made, Portnoy went to a 24-hour Kinkos to print out the now infamous orange signs on the back of the briefing chairs that read: “Attention: to ensure proper social distancing this seat is to remain unoccupied for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak.”
Another unprecedented moment came about a week later when the WHCA dwindled the number of people in the briefing room from 25 to 14 after a member was suspected to have contracted COVID-19. A week later, Karl informed WHCA members that the reporter’s test results were negative.
Today, most outlets work on a 10-day rotation to accommodate the smaller numbers.
Things are also slower at the White House. There are usually no events on the president’s official schedule except for the daily coronavirus briefing around 5 or 6 p.m. Gaggles, which are impromptu question-and-answer huddles with newsmakers, are less frequent and attended by fewer reporters, who stand spaced out. The number of pool reporters has also been whittled down. This group of 21 rotating reporters, responsible for covering the president from the oval office, Roosevelt room or wherever he holds an event to distribute it to other outlets, are now working with only 13.
“The fear was that if we didn't do social distancing that someone in that room would get sick, spread it to others, then we, as a press corps would not be able to constitute the protective pool that's required to cover the president,” said Portnoy.
Portnoy said he only attends briefings at the White House every 12 days now because radio networks are sharing a single seat. Otherwise, he works from home where he has set up a workspace in his guest bedroom complete with a laptop, audio board, iPad and a desktop.
“It’s from this position that I’m arguably just as functional, if not more functional with fewer distractions than I’d be at the White House,” said Portnoy.
Most of the White House press corps has also used this as an opportunity to work together.
Because of the efforts of NPR White House Correspondent and WHCA board member Tamara Keith, reporters in the briefing room are asking questions on behalf of their colleagues. The press corps started a shared Google document where reporters who are unable to physically be in the room can submit questions to be asked on behalf of their outlet by those who are there.
But the transition hasn’t always been an exercise in solidarity.
Although every other outlet adhered to the distancing guidance of the WHCA, correspondents for the far-right news site One America News went their own way. According to Portnoy, OAN was originally put into a 10-day rotation with outlets like Al Jazeera, BBC and PBS. OAN defied the WHCA’s social distancing policy when reporter Chanel Rion attended the briefing twice when it wasn’t her turn on the rotation, standing up behind the seated reporters.
“They felt, to a degree I suppose, entitled to be in that room even though they had a slot in a rotation alongside organizations as wide reaching as PBS and Univision,” Portnoy said. Even CBS News, which has been on the White House beat since 1933 - as best Portnoy can tell - isn’t in the briefing room every day.
After the OAN reporter declined a formal request not to attend the briefing without a seat, the WHCA publicly announced it had removed the outlet from the rotation.
“We do not take this action lightly. This is a matter of public safety,” the statement said.
Rion tweeted on April 4, “The WHCA (a private club), isolated @OAN because we asked questions they did not like. Unlike other WHCA members OAN airs ALL WH Taskforce Briefings in full without commercial breaks and will continue to do so during this National Emergency.”
The removal was short lived. Rion was invited back by White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham and was back in the briefing room the next evening.
The Role of the Press in a Pandemic
“Everything that's been happening outside, it's been a microcosm at the White House,” said Gomez.
The coronavirus task force press briefings have devolved into combative exchanges between Trump and reporters. During interactions with the president and health officials, reporters have repeatedly pushed back on unclear information about the virus or the federal government’s sluggish response when the disease began to spread in late January. Other questions have included current data about the spread of COVID-19, the supplying (or lack thereof) of personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and face shields for health care workers, and where the U.S. stands on national testing capabilities.
When pressed on his delayed response to the pandemic Trump has repeatedly used his platform to attack reporters in both personal and professional terms.
While Trump’s exchange with PBS News White House Correspondent Yamiche Alcindor was the most widely noticed, he frequently banters using insults. He made the following biting remarks to reporters when asked about his coronavirus response:
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter.”
“You know you’re a fake.”
“You’re a third rate reporter.”
“He’s a showboat.”
How to report on the Trump administration has been an evolving challenge since he began his presidency more than three years ago. For a year before coronavirus, press briefings disappeared altogether and the only time the press corps had access to the president was on his terms, usually over the deafening whir of the Marine One helicopter on the White House South lawn.
Historically, briefings have served as a vector in which a president’s administration has the opportunity to share selected information with reporters, who then share it with the public. Reporters have the opportunity to ask whichever questions they deem important on behalf of the public. As the weeks progress, the Trump administration has become increasingly irritated by reporter’s questions on the administration’s crippled response to testing and its ability to take responsibility for the spread of the virus which has surpassed all other countries in late March.
For Portnoy, his responsibility rests on not getting distracted by the noise and staying focused on what he’s there to do — ask questions.
“The whole effort here is not to score political points or prove the president wrong or make him look bad,” he said. “We're there to ask questions.”
With a president who does not directly answer many questions, instead responding with insults, this could be a losing battle for both parties. The press can seem antagonistic and the president may appear evasive. Even as reporters ward off the ad hominem attacks, the briefings are still on the president’s terms.
Either way, the White House press corps must be there to report what the president says.
“The briefings are the primary focal point of news,” said Portnoy. “The president has taken it upon himself to speak directly to the press corps and the country, and we are obliged to cover it.”
However, not all news outlets agree with Portnoy. In recent weeks television outlets like ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, CNN, MSNBC, began to cut away from the briefings in late March or decided to only partially air them. CNN has experimented with a post-fact-check of misleading claims. But research states that the damage could already be done.
University of Michigan researchers found in a study that the odds are stacked against an individual when it comes to changing misinformation after they’ve consumed it. And attempts at retractions — or fact-checking — often fail. This is because of what researchers call the “overkill backfire effect,” corrected information is rejected because the repetition of the former, incorrect claim reinforces it. The study found there’s also the “familiarity backfire effect,” which leaves the individual more familiar with the misleading claim than if they would’ve only heard it once, and therefore sticking to the first, incorrect claim.
Another element of the briefings: They’ve taken on a partisan bent. In the absence of the large political rallies Trump used to hold regularly, it’s his prime opportunity to command an audience. Trump boasted on Twitter that the number of people tuning into them beat ratings for The Bachelor and Monday Night Football.
So, with coronavirus drastically changing the American people’s daily lives and an upcoming election in November, what role does that leave for the White House press corps and political coverage in general?
For Gomez, it’s straightforward. The role of the White House press is not only about getting information to the public, but also vetting it.
“We have a responsibility to fact check the information coming from the White House, the CDC and the WHO because right now we’re in uncharted waters.”
Correction made at 4:44 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated that CBS News had a seat in the briefing room since 1933. The briefing room was remodeled with seats in 1981, but CBS News has been covering the White House since 1933.