- Covering the White House is complicated during COVID-19, even when officially credentialed.
- We were there when the CDC lifted the mask mandate for fully vaccinated people.
- After more than a year of remote work, we rediscovered why reporting in person is always worth it.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The White House staffer ripped off his mask, announced “it’s official,” and flashed a broad smile.
In the press briefing room, someone shouted, “Let’s have a mask-burning party!” One reporter said, “I want to see people’s smiles.”
Even President Joe Biden removed his mask in a meeting with Republican senators, we learned.
Such is the slice of history we witnessed at the White House when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated people in most cases could ditch their masks. Throughout the afternoon, we saw more and more liberated faces.
We’re both new to covering the White House full time. We recently got our “hard passes” to visit parts of the building without an escort. This identification credential is a “golden ticket” to the nation’s power center — at least in normal times.
But there’s nothing normal about working as a White House reporter these days. Veteran correspondents say it’s hard working remotely and not having daily in-person access to White House staffers.
“Obviously, everything is different because of the pandemic restrictions,” George Condon, the White House correspondent for National Journal, said. “I’ve been covering the White House full time since 1982, and there’s been nothing to compare with today’s restrictions.”
Many reporters have attempted to report on the White House from home across both the Trump administration and the Biden administration.
“I’m anxious to get back. I think just psychologically, working at home, it just wears on you after a while,” Ted Johnson, who covers media, politics, and entertainment for Deadline, said. “You need that personal interaction, and I think a lot of people are kind of at that moment right now.”
That became evident to us — quickly.
Winning the lottery
When Insider first assigned us to cover the White House, our friends asked if they’d see us in the briefing room with White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Our answer? It’s complicated.
During a pandemic, we learned, most everything is complicated inside the White House.
Our first step was applying for our hard passes in February, which prompted a Secret Service background check.
Weeks later, we received appointment dates for a COVID-19 test and photo. We received our hard passes on separate days but had similar experiences: going to the wrong gated entrance, panicking and calling people for directions, almost missing the cutoff for the COVID-19 testing window.
And sweating — a lot of sweating.
Our texts from Nicole Gaudiano’s appointment date show the toll of our shared challenges.
“Update. I’m still outside. A bug landed on my computer. I tried to blow it off…while wearing a mask. Thank you for joining me on this journey,” Nicole wrote.
Tina Sfondeles: “This was my exact day. With sweat and no food or water.”
We wanted to take our new passes for a spin. During normal times, breezing into the White House with a hard pass would be no problem.
But COVID-19 restrictions mean that only 80 journalists among the thousands who work in Washington, DC, can be on the White House campus at one time. Some of those journalists are part of small “press pools” that follow the president and vice president and share their coverage with the broader press corps. Others are reporters who have assigned seats in the press briefing room.
Others, including us, have to apply for access through the White House Correspondents’ Association’s lottery system, which we won for Thursday.
But winning the lottery did not give us access to reserved workspace or the press briefing. Only a limited number reporters from certain news outlets get to attend at one time because of the pandemic.
And every journalist must pass a COVID-19 test before entering the White House.
Something ‘terrible’ could happen
When we approached the White House complex last week, security gates and fences still surrounded it. Upon nearing the COVID-19 testing site, one of us (not Tina) got trapped behind some low fencing surrounding Lafayette Square, the park just across from the White House — and climbed over.
PSA: Never do this.
As soon as we crossed the street, an officer said this transgression could have caused something “terrible” to happen. Word traveled, and another officer at a different location reinforced the same message, multiple times.
We looked at the White House and saw security perched on top of the building. We considered the word “terrible.”
Lesson learned: It will never, ever happen again.
As we walked through the White House gate, we spotted Surgeon General Vivek Murthy right in front of us. We zipped through security and tracked him down for a question — because we could, because our hard passes open these gates and make such things possible.
We wanted to know what it had been like working in this restricted pandemic environment.
“I think like any other workplace, we’re looking forward to getting back to an environment where more people can be around each other, see each other,” he said while dashing to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. “And, you know, I think that day is getting closer and closer as more people get vaccinated. We see the number of infections coming down, which is very encouraging.”
Nothing groundbreaking there, but still: chance encounters don’t happen when you’re on a laptop in your kitchen.
An old building ‘overflowing with people’
Inside the north gate, there’s a lovely fountain in front of the White House that we tried to see up close, until another Secret Service agent told us, yet again, not to do that.
So instead, we marched along the driveway toward the briefing room, passing “pebble beach” on our right.
There are no pebbles or beach, just a long row of green awnings covering the TV reporters who do live shots with the White House in the background and, in one reporter’s case, while wearing a pair of sneakers with pom-pom laces off-screen from viewers at home.
Before the pandemic, reporters with hard passes could go to the White House anytime they wanted, Condon said — no notice required. And even without a seat in the press briefing room, reporters could stand on the sides during briefings and pepper the press team with questions in their adjacent offices.
At least on the morning we arrived — before the CDC’s mask announcement — COVID-19 reminders greeted us everywhere: a sign that said “MASKS REQUIRED beyond this point,” green signs on the backs of chairs that call for social distancing, an absence of people in desks that normally would be filled.
It’s no wonder, either. The space for media is super tight. Some journalists work back-to-back in rows of cubicles, others in dark closets and cubbies.
Whatever you think you know about White House media accommodations from “West Wing” or some movie, forget it.
“The reality of the White House is it’s a two-century-old building that is overflowing with people,” Condon said in a phone interview.
“My desk in the basement is jammed in, where my chair is touching three other chairs. There’s six of us, within a very small space,” he added. “People do come in, sometimes with colds and so on. You hear every conversation everybody else has. There’s not a whole lot of privacy, or space.
“That’s not really prime for a pandemic.”
Johnson, of Deadline, was among many Washington reporters who steered clear of the White House for most of the pandemic. He made his first trip back in a long time last week — also to get his hard pass. And he noticed an immediate difference in the briefing room.
“You would see, especially in the last year of the Trump administration in the back room,” conservative correspondents “sometimes not wearing a mask and being kind of defiant,” Johnson said, adding: “But I think that the briefings — I think it just seems like a return to normal.”
He’s also noticing a lack of confrontations between reporters and the administration — something the public and reporters grew very accustomed to seeing while Donald Trump was president.
But it’s early, he said.
“I just haven’t seen the level of confrontation from the Trump administration,” Johnson said. “I haven’t even seen some of the exchanges that we saw during the Obama years.”
COVID-19 has required a new approach to an old standard of White House reporting, said April Ryan, the White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for TheGrio.
In general, White House reporters have to find ways to overcome the pattern of “hurry up and wait” for information from on high.
“But then when you add the layer of COVID, then when you add the layer of the lottery system, etc., etc., you know, the wait is longer, it’s harder,” she said. “The best journalist is not the one who just waits to say what the president says. But you fill in the rest of the backstory from all sides of the spectrum.”
The White House pays for COVID-19 tests for reporters who are part of White House press pools and have assigned seats in the press briefing room. But for those of us who get there via the lottery system, there’s no free test.
Instead, the White House bills us $170 each for testing at the White House Conference Center, though the White House will accept certain other test results that are cheaper. Have an on-site billing question? You’re out of luck. The CVS employees tasked with administering the tests didn’t know how the billing worked. The White House simply hands them a list of approved names every day.
Condon said the main thing reporters have lost by not being allowed at the White House on a daily basis isn’t necessarily access to the press secretary’s briefing.
“More damaging in some ways is that you can’t go over there and just go up to somebody and ask him a question,” he said. “You can’t go into a deputy press secretary’s office, sit down, and get a sense of what’s going on and build a relationship because you’re there.”
Access you can’t emulate on the phone
Reporters who gained access to the White House were floating in and out of the lower press office when we visited last week. That access can’t be emulated on the phone. Neither can a visit to the hallway outside Psaki’s office to see if she’s available. Face-to-face contact leads to deeper understanding, more scoops, and better journalism for readers.
Since Thursday was our big chance at access, we wanted to make the most of our visit. So we ducked into the press office to say hello and happened to be there as the news broke about masks. A staffer we had been talking to heard the news, checked his computer, and then took off his mask.
He said he was glad he’d get to see his colleagues’ faces.
We felt the same. We have worked together at Insider’s new DC bureau — just over 1 year old now — since February. Our trip to the White House was the first time we met in person. Our chitchat was confined to
We are both fully vaccinated and removed our masks as well. We’re unclear on what this precisely means for our future reporting, but we’re certainly tired of videoconferencing and phone calls.
The White House Correspondents’ Association signaled more changes were coming “to safely bring things closer to ‘normal’ for journalists on the complex.”
Now if they can just do something about all those gates and fences.
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