Media feud escalates as conservative TV network asks White House to intervene

Legal counsel for OANN argues White House briefing room is federal property, and Trump should not yield press room control to outside journalist group.

Updated: May 1, 2020 - 12:46pm

An ongoing feud between the White House press corps and the conservative television network One American News Network has escalated, with the network asking the Trump administration to intervene and exert greater control over the White House press briefing room.

In a letter to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, legal counsel for OANN argued the White House is federal property and access to its press room should be governed in a manner similar to that of the U.S. Supreme Court, which does not have an outside 501c3 controlling press room access.

Currently, the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA), a private nonprofit organization, maintains a seating chart that limits press access to White House briefings. 

The WHCA previously voted to ban OANN from the White House briefing room, claiming that the network had violated social distancing rules during the coronavirus epidemic. OANN White House reporter Chanel Rion said that since that ban she and her colleague Jenn Pellegrino, weekend White House reporter, had been harassed and intimidated by WHCA journalists and forced to stand in a roped-off corner of the briefing room.

Despite being voted out by the WHCA, OANN reporters maintain access to the press room by special permission as guests of the White House press secretary.

Bruce Fein, partner at the law firm Fein & DelValle and outside counsel for OANN, said the WHCA engages in viewpoint discrimination that disadvantages conservative outlets like OANN who are not perceived as sharing the WHCA's political viewpoints.

Fein claimed that the law requires that access to public forums like the White House press briefing room be "viewpoint-neutral," and said he would advise the White House to use a first-come-first-serve or lottery method to determine seating.

"The evidence compels the conclusion that WHCA has discriminated against OAN in the allocation of Briefing Room seat assignments and auxiliary space for desks and live hits on the White House lawn based on viewpoint," Fein wrote this week in a letter to Meadows. "The constitutional case for the White House Press Office to take control over the Press Briefing Room seating arrangements and auxiliary space for White House journalists and to end the WHCA private monopoly over government property and otherwise in these matters is overwhelming. To fail to do so would continue viewpoint based First Amendment exclusion and hijacking of public property for private gain that would shock most Americans."

Fein argues the WHCA's control over the White House press room access is not protected by law. "It has no ownership over the property," Fein told Just the News. "It has no leasehold interest over the property. It doesn't decide who is a trespasser ... this government property site is dedicated for public use. It's not for the private use of the White House Correspondents' Association."

Fein said that the Trump White House, and all future administrations, would be better served by moving toward a model similar to that of the Supreme Court, which has a government-employed public information officer who handles press identification and hearing room access. 

"Now the law is very clear," Fein said. "If the White House wanted to have no press briefings at all, they could just shut the whole thing down and say, ‘All right, you don't have any access here. We don't do press briefing, you're out.'"

Earlier this month, the Justice Department rejected a CNN political analyst's legal claim he deserved access to President Trump's coronavirus briefings, warning the White House press room is ultimately federal property and not the legal domain of journalists. 

“The press Briefing Room is White House property," and the White House press secretary has "merely acquiesced" to WHCA's seating arrangements for reporters during the pandemic, the DOJ stated in a letter to the CNN analyst's attorney.

Fein told Just the News he had read the DOJ letter prior to sending his letter to Meadows.

"It reinforces what we're saying," Fein said. "It's a 50-year-old understanding, that with a limited public forum, you have viewpoint neutrality."

In a sign of the escalating tension between OANN and WHCA, Fein on Friday filed a complaint with the Secret Service alleging Rion endured bullying, harassment, and even a form of assault involving, separately, a photographer and a reporter covering the White House for major news outlets. 

Fein said the Secret Service was investigating the complaint. A spokeswoman for the Secret Service declined to comment about the complaint. The WHCA did not respond to a request for comment.

"They don't get to decide who accesses that room," Rion told Just the News in an interview. "They are right now serving as gatekeepers. They don't get to decide whose viewpoints get to get in or out. That is not their domain, and that is none of their business."

Fein said OANN would prefer not to have to bring lawsuits against the WHCA or any individuals if the parties are able to come to a satisfactory arrangement. 

To read the full April 25 letter to Meadows (which includes the Secret Service complaint), click the pdf link below: