White House press corps limits amount of journalists on briefings

Reporters vote to slash attendance at daily briefings, citing ‘virulence’ of the Omicron variant

Washington journalists have decided that they’d rather give up face-to-face opportunities to press for answers from the White House than set aside their fears of catching Covid-19.

The White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) voted in an emergency board meeting on Sunday night to cut attendance at daily press briefings to 14 from the usual capacity of 49. The unanimous vote followed a failed effort last month to persuade White House press secretary Jen Psaki to move her briefings online amid the rapid spread of Covid-19’s Omicron strain.

“Given the virulence of the spread, medical experts have once again advised that it would be prudent to substantially reduce the number of people working in the cramped, poorly ventilated workspace that we share,” WHCA president Steve Portnoy told members in an email.

Although Portnoy cited Omicron’s “virulence,” multiple studies have found that the variant is less dangerous than previous strains because it doesn’t appear to attack the lungs as aggressively. The press corps reportedly urged Psaki to hold briefings online rather than in-person, but White House officials told the WHCA that current protocols – including mask-wearing and requiring either proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test – are sufficient.

Under the new capacity limit, only reporters from Bloomberg, Reuters and the Associated Press will be able to regularly attend White House press briefings. Other journalists – including those known for being relatively tough on President Joe Biden – will have to wait their turn for rotating seats in the press room.

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Portnoy, a reporter for CBS News, told WHCA members that the decision to cut attendance will be revisited by January 21, with board members considering “case rates and the latest guidance from experts” to determine when to fully reopen White House briefings.

Psaki told the Washington Post last month that current White House protocols are based on expert advice. “We don’t think it sends the right message to the country or the world to close the briefing room or pause in-person briefings.” When attendance was light at a December 23 briefing, she appeared to needle those reporters who had called for moving the events online, saying “only the bold and the brave” were attending the meeting.

The US has set new records for Covid-19 infections in the past week, with Omicron’s rapid spread driving the surge. White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that Omicron has so far proven to be milder than previous variants, and he expects new infections to start declining by the end of this month.

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