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The White House press room turned out to be a more dangerous place than anyone realized. And the reporters who work there started getting nervous about it.
The news Friday about an outbreak of covid-19 infections among White House employees — including Vice President Pence’s press secretary — has raised further concerns among journalists about working in the cramped confines of the West Wing’s press briefing room.
It also raised frustrations: Almost every reporter in the building began wearing masks last week as a precaution against spreading or catching the virus, even while President Trump’s press staffers went without.
On Monday, after some reporters made their agitation clear, the White House ordered staffers to wear masks in semi-public parts of the complex, such as the briefing room. The edict doesn’t apply to individual offices or to Trump or Pence. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Even before Friday’s developments, some correspondents had stopped accepting offers to join pool assignments, which provide reporting for the entire press corps in areas with limited access, such as the Oval Office or Air Force One. And some news organizations had started sending younger staff members to cover the briefings, apparently a strategy to protect those with inavoidable exposure to spouses and children.
A veteran White House reporter said the press corps was “rattled” by the news that Katie Miller, Pence’s press secretary, tested positive for the virus, as did an unidentified White House valet. Miller has worked closely with reporters, although she didn’t accompany Pence and a pool of reporters on a tour last week of a General Motors factory in Indiana.
“The press corps isn’t looking to the White House to take precautions,” said the reporter, who, like several others, asked not to be named because his employer doesn’t permit him to speak without authorization. “We are doing more than they are out of an abundance of caution.”
Trump, he said, “is definitely setting the tone” in declining to wear a mask.
Miller’s positive diagnosis got the attention of Debra J. Saunders, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s White House correspondent. Saunders spoke face-to-face with Miller just before Miller’s positive test.
Saunders said the conversation lasted less than 10 minutes and was outside, so “my risk was very low.” She took a covid test, which turned out to be negative. Nevertheless, Saunders said she is working from home for the next two weeks, following the example set by Trump’s science advisors, Drs. Anthony Fauci, Stephen Hahn and Robert Redfield, who took the same precaution after Miller’s positive test.
No one on the vice president’s staff wore a mask on Air Force Two during the Indiana trip, including Pence, who held an off-the-record session with reporters on the flight back. A reporter who covered the visit said there was “absolutely no social distancing” during the Q-and-A.
The outbound portion of the trip was delayed for about an hour, and six Pence staffers who had been in contact with Miller got off the plane to avoid potentially infecting others.
Some news organizations have left it up to reporters to decide whether to cover events at the White House. “My nervous bosses have . . . [made] it clear we should feel under no pressure to travel or work out of the White House,” said another reporter.
The White House Correspondents Association, which represents reporters in discussions with the president’s press staff, is “strongly recommending” its members wear masks when inside the White House, said Jonathan Karl, the group’s president and an ABC News reporter.
“We have a responsibility to protect ourselves and to protect the White House’s staff,” Karl said. The news about Miller and the White House employee “certainly drove home the need to take precautions.”
At Friday’s press briefing, all of the journalists wore masks, he said. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not. During a presidential pool “spray” — a brief photo-op — in the Cabinet Room on Saturday, journalists also wore masks, but Trump and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not.
Since mid-March, the WHCA has twice reduced the number of reporters permitted in the briefing room to maintain social distancing. Karl said he has asked press officials if they should be wearing masks, too, without resolution. “I have had that conversation every day,” he said, with some frustraton.
He called Monday’s announcement about mask-wearing by White House staff “a welcome development.”
The WHCA has asked for the White House to set up remote-conferencing facilities to enable reporters outside the building to ask questions during briefings, but so far “they have not responded,” said Karl.
Despite the increasingly risky conditions, Karl and other journalists say in-person reporting is important, and they’ll keep showing up.
“I look forward to returning” when it’s his turn in the rotation, said Zeke Miller, a White House reporter for the Associated Press. The pool exists to inform the public with an “up-to-the-minute independent account of what their government is doing on their behalf,” he said. “That is more critical than ever in times of crisis and confusion, both in terms of accurately filling the public’s need for information and — sometimes equally important — its ability to debunk disinformation.”
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