Biden administration pledges open access to briefings after AHCJ raises concerns

About Felice J. Freyer

Felice J. Freyer is AHCJ's vice president and chair of the organization's Right to Know Committee. She is a health care reporter for The Boston Globe.

A spokesman for President Biden’s administration has pledged that any legitimate reporter who signs up with the White House press office will be invited to briefings and provided with embargoed background materials.

The promise came after AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee protested the practice of holding small group briefings with select reporters.

The press official denied that there had been any attempt to exclude people and objected to characterizing the press briefings as “closed.” Instead, he said, the White House press staff is working on updating its mailing lists.

Still, according to AHCJ members working in Washington, D.C., the Biden administration’s approach to media briefings has been inconsistent.

In a welcome change from the previous administration, the COVID-19 Response Team has held regular, open briefings three times a week with public health leaders front and center, and has provided full transcripts soon after. AHCJ applauds this openness and especially the decision to give public health experts the leading role in communicating about the pandemic. Obstacles to speaking with public health officials were a top concern identified by AHCJ members in our “Covering COVID” survey last year.

But the White House has taken a different approach to other important announcements. For example, when President Biden unveiled his COVID-19 plan, a handful of reporters got an advance look at embargoed materials and a chance to ask questions the night before the Jan. 21 announcement.

Some AHCJ members said that they were not invited to the evening briefing, but received a fact sheet the following morning, after some news reports had already appeared. The same pattern was repeated for each of the executive orders, prompting complaints on Twitter.

On Jan. 25, we wrote to the White House press office asking for “a more inclusive approach in the future.”

“If President Biden is the president for all Americans, as he declared in his inaugural address, that would surely include Americans who get their information from trade publications and smaller, local, and regional outlets,” said the letter from me, as Right to Know Committee chair, and Vice Chair Sabriya Rice. “It is both unfair and unwise to set up obstacles to the reporters serving these audiences.”

Kevin Munoz, the White House spokesman in charge of COVID-19 and health care, responded by email within the hour, asking to talk on the phone – a call that took place on Jan. 31. In that conversation with Rice and me, Munoz asked for patience and said his office was working on a solution.

On Monday, the White House press office said AHCJ members can email their contact information to press@who.eop.gov. (We recommend that you specify that you want to get on the list of people invited to health care briefings, not just the general White House press list.)

We’re eager to hear from members about how well this process works. Please report any difficulties through AHCJ’s new form for tracking access to information issues.

We remain hopeful that a spirit of openness will prevail.

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