White House Correspondents Call on CNN to Let Presidential Debate Journalists in Studio After ‘Repeated Requests,’ Rejections

A “deeply concerned” correspondents’ association says on-site representation is “for the sake of the news cycle, for history and mostly importantly for the American people”

Signage for a CNN presidential debate outside of their Atlanta studios
Signage for a CNN presidential debate outside of their Atlanta studios (Credit: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) called on CNN Thursday to let presidential debate journalists into the studio, where President Joe Biden and Donald Trump are set to contend that evening, after several “repeated requests” and rejections.

“For weeks, WHCA has advocated for the inclusion of our White House travel pool inside the studio for the presidential debate. Our work has included outreach to the White House, the campaigns of both President Biden and former President Trump and the debate host network CNN,” Kelly O’Donnell, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association said in a memo on Thursday.

It continued: “We appreciate that CNN is providing a television feed of the debate to other networks and will grant access to still photographers from various news outlets to cover the candidates inside the studio. Those are positive actions that WHCA fully supports.”

The statement went on to state that CNN has continuously turned down the group’s request for the news network to open up the White House media pool for journalists.

“However, WHCA is deeply concerned that CNN has rejected our repeated requests to include the White House travel pool inside the studio. Through conversations and advocacy, we urged CNN to grant access to at least one print pool reporter for the duration of the debate, WHCA has been informed that one print reporter will be permitted to enter the studio during a commercial break to briefly observe the setting,” the statement continued. “That is not sufficient in our view and diminishes a core principle of presidential coverage. The White House pool has a duty to document, report and witness the president’s events and his movements on behalf of the American people.”

In a statement released later Thursday, CNN said the event is closed to the press but outlined the access it’s providing other outlets.

“As proud members of the White House Correspondents Association, we respect the role the organization plays and their support for press freedom and access,” the statement said. “CNN’s Presidential Debate is being held without an audience in a CNN studio and is closed to press. The feed was made available to Washington Pool Members, Washington Pool subscribers and CNN Affiliates, and is also available to embed via CNN’s YouTube channel without charge for digital outlets and is available on CNN.com. Following our traditional approach, CNN is providing access to the debate studio for a tight pool of photographers for the duration of the event and a larger group of photographers during a commercial break. In addition, CNN is providing access to the debate hall for the designated print pool reporter during the first commercial break to allow them to provide a pool report from inside the debate studio.”

The WHCA’s initial memo noted the importance of diverse media coverage.

“The pool is there for the ‘what ifs?’ in a world where the unexpected does happen. A pool reporter is present to provide context and insight by direct observation and not through the lens of the television production,” the memo read. “A pool reporter is an independent observer whose duties are separate from the production of the debate as a news event. The pool reporter works on behalf of the entire White House press corps. Print pool reports are an important part of the historical record. Further, the pool is screened by the US Secret Service and travels with the president on Air Force One so there is no security issue. The Biden campaign told WHCA it supports our request. The Trump campaign told WHCA it would not oppose the inclusion of the White House pool reporter. The Trump campaign has a separate press corps.”

It added: “Tonight’s debate will have no audience present and includes format rules that can silence candidates’ microphones. We don’t know how this will play out in real time. A pool reporter is there to observe what is said and done when microphones are off or when either candidate is not seen on camera but may speak, gesture, move, or engage in some way.”

Concluding its memo, the association pushed for CNN to amend its rules for press coverage of the debate.

“WHCA believes this principle of coverage matters. The White House travel pool has been included in past presidential debates and we believe that standard of access is essential,” the statement said. “Precedent matters for future debates. CNN is a good citizen of our association and a vital partner in the daily coverage of the White House press corps. We recognize CNN is investing significant resources to host this debate and we wish them every success. WHCA respectfully requests that CNN adjust its plan and welcome the White House travel pool print representative to witness the debate in full for the sake of the news cycle, for history and mostly importantly for the American people.”

Biden and Trump’s face-off, which takes place Thursday at 6 p.m. PST, will be the first general election debate of the 2024 election season. It will be moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash.

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