WASHINGTON — As news outlets and press advocates pile on the Obama administration for the Justice Department’s long-term spying operations against the Associated Press and Fox News, one group has remained conspicuously absent from the debate: the White House Correspondents Association.
The WHCA, considered the primary organization representing reporters and news outlets covering the executive branch, has so far resisted pressure to challenge the DOJ and White House on its investigations into the AP and Fox reporter James Rosen, several sources familiar with the situation said.
WHCA president Ed Henry, also a Fox News correspondent, did not respond to queries about whether or not the organization will take a formal stance on the administration’s treatment of reporters in the wake of recent revelations. Additionally, past WHCA presidents either did not respond to a request for comment or declined to comment on the record.
Some observers say the WHCA, best known for the annual dinner it hosts for press, celebrities, and the political establishment, tends to avoid formally engaging in controversies like this one. A former WHCA president suggested it might be too early for the organization to comment while the focus is still on DOJ rather than the White House in particular.
But the WHCA’s unwillingness to comment on what many in the press consider a clear case of overreach could raise questions about the organization’s function and purpose.
Incoming WHCA president Steve Thomma, a reporter with McClatchy, deferred questions about a formal protest to Henry. But he said the Rosen story in particular raised red flags.
“Speaking only for myself, it’s very troubling that the government is doing this. A reporter, this reporter, is not a criminal,” he said. “If I read the Constitution correctly, reporters serving as a constant check on government is not a crime, it’s our patriotic duty.”
WHCA member reporters, including Henry, haven’t shied away from the press controversies in the daily briefings with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Tough questions about the Justice Department media investigations have dominated the televised questioning recently. But the WHCA’s resistance to a formal complaint is particularly noteworthy given the fact that groups representing congressional correspondents on radio, television, photography, and daily and periodical publications have spoken up on behalf of the journalists. In a letter to DOJ last week the Standing Committee of Correspondents, Radio and Television Correspondents Association, Executive Committee of Periodical Correspondents, and Standing Committee of Press Photographers slammed the DOJ’s investigation into the AP and questioned its constitutionality.
Likewise, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 51 news organizations wrote DOJ earlier this month, arguing that its targeting of AP raises questions about “the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public’s interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct.”
And while Henry has not weighed in on the DOJ’s tactics in his capacity as WHCA president, Fox News executive Michael Clemente called them “downright chilling,” and pledged, “We will unequivocally defend [Rosen’s] right to operate as a member of what up until now has always been a free press.”
Update: Henry told Politico Tuesday afternoon that the WHCA stands in “strong solidarity” with AP and Rosen.