This week, we spoke to veteran White House Reporter Fred Lucas and Daily Signal Executive Editor Rob Bluey to find out what’s going on
John Popp: From The Heritage Foundation, this is Heritage Explains.
Rob Bluey: In 2004, when George W. Bush was running for reelection against Democrat John Kerry, there was a report from 60 Minutes, Dan Rather being the anchor of the show. It was a Wednesday night program. 60 Minutes had the flagship on Sunday nights, and then, this other program on Wednesday nights. And they were going to radically alter the political landscape, because they had these documents on George W. Bush, that no one had ever seen before. They were called the Killian documents, after the person who had them.
Mark Guiney: This is the voice of Rob Bluey, the Vice President of Communications at The Heritage Foundation and the Executive Editor of The Daily Signal. And he, like many Americans, was watching these developments as they were explained by Dan Rather back in 2004 as a young journalist.
Dan Rather: Last week on this broadcast, we heard, for the first time, the full story from a Texas politician, who says he helped George Bush avoid military service in Vietnam. Former Texas House speaker Ben Barnes said he helped Bush get a highly coveted place in the National Guard. We also presented documents for the first time, which indicated that, once Mr. Bush was accepted into the Guard, he failed to live up to the requirements of his service, including following an order.
Bluey: And it was revealed that everybody thought Bush’s reelection campaign was over. In retrospect, you look back at John Kerry, and you think about him being such a weak candidate. But at the time, it was a really pretty close race, came down to Ohio essentially being the deciding state. And so, it had the potential to really alter how that presidential race went. Myself and others who were in the online journalism space began looking at the documents, which CBS posted on its website, and quickly realized there was no way that you could have produced these on a typewriter in the late 1960s. They were using a Microsoft Word font, Times New Roman, which we’re all familiar with, anybody who’s used the word processing software. And so, the story began to unravel, and it demonstrated to me the power that a single person, a single reporter, could have, particularly when you’re connected to this network.
And the DRUDGE REPORT picked it up, and then, a Fox News carried the story. And days went on with Dan Rather denying that there was anything wrong with it, but eventually, he had to admit that there were problems and CBS retracted the story. The example of CBS News and what’s going on today is a perfect illustration of why we need multiple voices in an environment like the White House Press Briefing Room, because here, you had a situation with Dan Rather and CBS News believing that they had the goods and the story, which turned out to be completely false and easily knocked down frankly. And if you didn’t have others in the journalism space holding CBS accountable to ask the tough questions or to make sure that it verified the information, well then, you wouldn’t necessarily have a situation. The entire landscape of our country could be different today. And so, when you have a monopoly, where only corporate interests are represented in that White House Press Briefing Room, you have a troubling situation in my mind.
Guiney: Today, on Heritage Explains, we’re talking about the press and about a particular situation that is playing out for us at Heritage right now. It affects our staff here, of course, as well as that of other news organizations throughout the country, but has implications for the American people as a whole. Last month, the White House released a statement saying that the White House Press Office was restricting the so-called hard passes that it issues to well-established journalists. These passes allow reporters to easily attend daily press briefings at the White House, to ask questions about President Biden and the federal government. For reasons that are not clear, the White House has tightened the rules around who gets a pass. And daily signal reporter, Fred Lucas, who has held a pass for 14 years has been informed that he is among those to be cut. Why does it matter? I sat down with Fred to get his side of the story. Fred Lucas, can you tell us who you are, what you do here?
Fred Lucas: Well, I have been the White House correspondent for The Daily Signal. Right now, I’m the Manager of the Investigative Reporting Project for The Daily Signal, but I have, up till very recently, still had a daily access to the White House from my hard pass.
Guiney: What led you to the world of journalism?
Lucas: Oh, that’s probably something I probably got into the journalism as with my high school newspaper. And from there, I majored in journalism in college, college newspaper. From there, covered two state capitals, Frankfurt, the Kentucky State Capital, and then, from there, I went to Hartford, Connecticut and covered the state capital there. And then, came to DC. And here I am.
Guiney: Before we get into the issue that we’re going to talk about today, can you explain to people, who may not understand, what the White House Press Office is or does? So you’re a journalist, you want to be present and have direct contact with the president and with the people who are making decisions around him, how does that access work?
Lucas: Reporters can get a day pass. A day pass is different from a hard pass, in that you have to call ahead that particular day of an event, tell them what event you want to cover, and then, they will wave you through at the security, if you’re approved for that day pass. Whereas a hard pass, you get issued, and you get to come in, leave, whenever you wish basically. When I first got my White House hard pass, that goes back to 2009 actually, when Barack Obama’s first year as president, and well before that, it was always the same process. It was a very apolitical process. It was handled by the Secret Service. If you’re with a news organization, a journalist, and you had day passes on a consistent basis, if you were consistently covering the White House.
Eventually, you would get a hard pass, and that was handled by the Secret Service. It didn’t matter which administration, which party controlled the White House. Now, this has completely changed under President Biden. They’ve completely politicized the process, and the White House Press Office has put in place a lot of rules that would affect journalists. And it has affected about 442, that we know of, there might be more, as of now, journalists have lost their hard passes, because of these new rules. And has disproportionately hit conservative news outlets.
Guiney: How did that day go for you? Okay, you had been covering the White House for many years, and now what happened? You just got an email?
Lucas: Yeah, the email first came in late May or so, which was informing people these new rules that they were putting in place. The problem there is that the White House never gave a formal rationale or justification for why they were putting all these new rules in place or what they thought was wrong with the old system. And they never said, at any point, how many journalists this was going to affect. On July 31st, 442 people had lost their hard pass. The Daily Signal actually got a 10 day extension, as did some other journalists. But as of that, that 10 day extension has elapsed. I’m not sure how many the total is as of right now.
Guiney: They gave you a heads up, and they said, “Some people might be losing their hard pass,” back in May, “because we’re putting in new requirements.” And then, more recently though, they said, “You are one of them.” Right?
Lucas: Right. And The Daily Signal met every single qualification that they put there, except for not being credentialed to cover other branches of government. So this is actually a first. We’ve never had one branch of government say “You have to be credentialed to cover another branch of government, in order to have credentials here.” So the White House is really the first to do that. My big concern here is that these rules are probably a first step, because I think the big, big problem here is that this is not about one news outlet or one reporter or any even group of reporters. This is about you don’t want to have the president or president’s White House staff, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, choosing and picking which reporters can and can’t cover them. And I think that can have probably a chilling effect of reporters who do have the hard passes feel like, “Well, I could be removed from here, if I ask too tough of questions.” Then that’s going to really undermine the watchdog role of a press.
Guiney: Do you think that, I saw some speculation that, do the nature of the requirements, they’re requirements that are easier for large global news organizations to satisfy, but more difficult for regional or smaller news organizations to satisfy, do you think that that is a considered decision as part of the...?
Lucas: Yeah, yeah. Oh, I think so. I think so. I think this would be a tough hurdle for probably even a regional newspaper, maybe the Omaha Nebraska newspaper or something. That’s a fairly large market, however it’s not based in DC, but they might have a difficult time accessing the White House under these rules. And that’s not necessarily a conservative or liberal thing, but I very much think that the rules were tailored to disproportionately affect more conservative news outlets. And once you politicize it and put it in arbitrary hands of political appointees in the press office, I think we might see some cases where exceptions are made for more favorable outlets than not.
Guiney: Having gotten Fred’s take, I circled back up with Rob Bluey, Heritage Vice President for Communications, who you’ll remember from the beginning of the episode. So we just talked to Fred Lucas, you are Fred Lucas’ boss. You’re also my boss. And you’ve also been doing the political journalism thing for a long time, and in fact, you were one of the people who were pioneering in the journalism digital space back when that started, when blogging became a thing. Can you talk about that?
Bluey: Yeah, absolutely. I got the journalism bug in high school, and I’ve been doing it ever since. And came to Washington DC in the early 2000s, began working in conservative media at, first, at CNS News at the Media Research Center, in 2002. And it was through that experience that we saw the really the rise and explosion of online journalism, blogging as it was called in it’s heyday. And then, of course, it morphed into a large number of conservative media outlets, including The Daily Signal, which we founded in 2014. And so, conservatives went from having a very small piece of the pie, to really creating their own platforms, thanks to social media and the explosive growth of the internet, to reach audiences that probably would never have otherwise been able to see this perspective or hear this take on the news. There has been a growth in the number of reporters who have wanted to cover government.
We’ve seen an explosion of credentials on Capitol Hill to cover Congress. We’ve seen a large number of people wanting access to the White House Press Briefing Room. Fred and myself, some of our former colleagues at The Daily Signal, have been assigned pool duty, where we were able to travel with the vice president during the Trump administration and provide pool reports and do things that, traditionally, an organization like The Daily Signal wouldn’t have been afforded the opportunity to do so. And for us, we found it very beneficial to be bringing that story, not only to our audience, but to the larger number of Americans. And when the White House comes in and starts to change the rules, make it harder for Fred and other reporters like him to access the White House Press briefing room, we find it troubling, particularly because you have an administration which claims to be one of the most transparent in history.
You have Joe Biden himself calling it the People’s House. Why are they so reluctant to give a credential to somebody like Fred Lucas? And so, they put in place a new rule, which requires that Fred would have to get a credential, from either the US Congress or US Supreme Court, in order to access the White House, The Daily Signal and Fred does not have a credential from Congress or the Supreme Court. Therefore, he has been shut out. He can still go by applying every day and going through a Secret Service check every day, which is a burdensome requirement, we believe. It’s sad, because the White House has been able to call the number of reporters who have White House credentials by 30%. They’ve reduced the number of reporters who have White House credentials by 442, which is a significant number of fewer reporters who will now be able to cover the commander in chief.
Guiney: Did you find this development surprising?
Bluey: I found the development somewhat surprising, in the sense that there were signs that this was the direction that not only the White House would go, but also, the White House correspondents and the journalists in the room wanted to go. So for instance, a few years ago, Fred, who was a longtime member of the White House Correspondence Association, dating to the time that he began covering the White House in 2009, under President Barack Obama, changed its rules, to put in that same requirement, that he needed to be credentialed by another branch of government, in order to be a full fledged member of the White House Correspondence Association.
The White House, to its credit, under President Trump, did not put that stipulation and did not restrict Fred’s access, but the private association did. The other thing that happened was, when Fred and I had the opportunity to cover the White House Press pool, to be the one that would send out the dispatches to the other reporters to say, “Here’s what happened when Vice President Pence landed in Tampa,” in my case, or in Fred’s case, covering events just there at the White House grounds, other reporters objected to it, either through social media posts.
The New York Times actually did a full article critical of my role in that respect. Now mind you, they did not criticize anything about Fred or my reports. They were all deemed accurate and fair and balanced, in terms of what we reported, but these were warning signs. And I think that they were steps along the way that suggested the White House could eventually make this move. There’s another factor that doesn’t have anything to do with Fred or The Daily Signal. There’s another reporter, Simon Ateba from Today News Africa, who has had some confrontations, shall we say, with Karine Jean-Pierre in the White House Press Briefing Room. And some believe that the changes were made specifically to boot him from the Press Briefing Room, so not only Karine Jean-Pierre wouldn’t have to interact with him, but the other reporters who found him annoying and disrespectful also would be able to avoid having to deal with him in the White House Press Briefing Room as well. So Fred, in some cases, may be a casualty of that.
Guiney: So how is the Heritage Foundation responding?
Bluey: Well, Heritage has forcefully responded to the White House’s changes. Not only Kevin Roberts, our president, strongly condemning the move on the part of the White House to do this, but we’ve also taken steps. Fred was able to get a 10 day extension, that has since lapsed, so we are waiting on the US Congress and the Supreme Court to make a decision on his credentials. I expect that that will take weeks, if not months. These are not quick decisions that they tend to make. In the case of the Supreme Court, there’s a very limited number, of about two dozen reporters, who have a credential to cover the Supreme Court. I think that’s a higher bar for us to probably overcome. The Congress, they have thousands of reporters who are credentialed there. I think that that’s one where we stand a better chance, but we shall see what they ultimately decide.
Being that The Daily Signal is unique, in that it’s a nonprofit news organization affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, we don’t get our revenue from subscriptions or advertising. In fact, we pride ourselves on not having any advertising. And so, it’s a little bit of a different case from what they deal with most media outlets. And so, that’s what we’re doing right now. I think there’s always the potential to take steps down the road. There are other reporters who have been affected by this, who have threatened to take legal action. And twice during the Trump administration, Brian Karem, who was with Playboy, and Jim Acosta, who was with CNN, did take their cases to court and won, and they were reinstated. And the White House was forced to give them entry back into the grounds, as a result of those court decisions.
Guiney: What’s the bottom line? What should our Heritage members take away from this situation, do you think?
Bluey: It’s fundamentally about freedom of the press and access, again, to the People’s House. The American people, including Heritage supporters, I think, want to know what is going on in government. They want someone to ask the tough questions, to hold the president accountable, particularly at a time when so much is done behind the scenes, through what we call the administrative state here in Washington, DC, where federal agencies are the ones making the decisions that affect so much of our daily lives. You want to have, I would think, not only Fred Lucas, but other reporters like him, who are taking an approach that’s probably slightly different from the New York Times or CBS News in their coverage of the White House. And so, for a Heritage Foundation supporter, we would just ask that you speak out and you let your elected representatives or the White House know that this is an unacceptable move and that we view it as an attack on the press.
I think one of the things that I’ve most been disappointed with is the lack of outrage from other journalists. When Jim Acosta had his run in with President Trump, many journalists rushed to his side. In fact, you see even recent examples, where there was a local newspaper in Kansas, that’s in the news because police raided its offices, and it blew up. And there were many journalism organizations and other outlets that came to its defense. I don’t see a lot of them coming to the defense of Fred Lucas and The Daily Signal, despite the fact that Fred has been there for 14 years. And I think that’s a shame, and I think that probably has a little bit to do with the polarization in Washington, DC. I also think it has to do with reporters in Washington wanting to keep their tight knit pack closely together and not letting a lot of outsiders in, particularly those who are willing to approach things differently as The Daily Signal does.
Guiney: Thanks to Rob Bluey and Fred Lucas for appearing on today’s show. And thank you to all of you for listening to Heritage Explains. Check out our show notes, for more work by Rob Bluey and Fred Lucas. Rob is on Twitter @RobertBluey and Fred Lucas is @FredLucasWH. You can find the work at The Daily Signal on our website. You can find the work of The Daily Signal on their website, dailysignal.com. If you have any thoughts, feedback, or suggestions for future episodes, send them our way at HeritageExpla[email protected]. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.
Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It’s written and produced by Mark Guiney, Lauren Evans, and John Popp. Production assistance by Alexa Walker and Jeff Smith.