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White House warns reporter Simon Ateba about his press-room outbursts

In a first for Biden’s press office, the formal reprimand cites ‘continued interruptions’

Reporter Simon Ateba speaks out of turn at a White House press briefing in March. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)
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Escalating its feud with an assertive reporter, the White House on Tuesday issued a formal warning to Simon Ateba that he is at risk of losing his entry pass if he continues to disrupt daily press briefings.

The warning — a first for President Biden’s press office — followed run-ins between press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and the journalist from Cameroon who has interrupted her briefings to demand that he be recognized to ask a question.

Jean-Pierre has declined to call on Ateba for months and has repeatedly admonished him for speaking out of turn. Ateba, the owner and White House correspondent of a news site called Today News Africa, has portrayed himself as a victim of “racism and discrimination” by the administration.

In an unsigned letter, the White House press office told Ateba that he was at risk of losing his “hard” pass — the credential that enables reporters to enter the White House grounds at will — if he continues to disrupt briefings.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was repeatedly interrupted by correspondent Simon Ateba during the briefing on March 20. (Video: The Washington Post)

The letter cited six episodes on four occasions since early December in which Ateba interrupted or talked over other reporters to ask a question. He twice interrupted the March 20 briefing. During a briefing in December, his insistence that he be allowed to speak prompted Jean-Pierre to end the briefing early. Reporters have scolded him, saying his intrusions prevent them from asking questions.

“The White House recognizes that members of the press often raise their voices or shout questions at press briefings or events,” the letter to Ateba said. “Ordinarily such shouting stops when a reporter is called on for a question, and the briefing or event is able to continue. Continued interruptions are different; they prevent journalists from asking questions or administration officials and guests from responding.”

It added: “If you continue to impede briefings or events by shouting over your colleagues who have been called on for a question, even after you have been asked to stop by a White House employee, then your hard pass may be suspended or revoked, following notice and an opportunity to respond.”

As a practical matter, reporters’ hard passes will expire at the end of the month and must be renewed under broad new rules announced by the White House this year. Ateba is unlikely to qualify under the new criteria, which require reporters to first qualify for a congressional or Supreme Court press pass to receive one for the White House.

The congressional rules require journalists to submit ownership information to prove that they are employed full time by an organization principally concerned with news dissemination, not a lobbying or public-relations firm. Hard-pass holders must also reside in the greater D.C. area and must have gone to the White House for work at least once during the prior six months.

However, almost anyone can enter the White House press room on a daily pass, as long as they pass a security check. The process for applying is somewhat cumbersome and time-consuming.

The warning to Ateba is the first such letter sent under the new rules. Officials published the new standards — which include “respecting their colleagues, White House employees, and guests” and “not impeding events or briefings on campus” — to avoid a court challenge over the White House’s ability to restrict access by reporters.

The Trump White House lost two lawsuits after it banned CNN reporter Jim Acosta in 2018 and journalist Brian Karem in 2019 for conduct it said was disruptive. Judges ruled that the White House had violated Acosta’s and Karem’s due-process rights because it did not have a written set of guidelines under which a journalist could be denied access.

Ateba was the subject of a Washington Post story published Saturday about his run-ins with the White House press staff. In a tweet Tuesday disclosing the warning letter, he called The Post’s story a “hit piece meant to prevent me from renewing my hard pass.” He included the text of the White House’s warning letter.

Since he began demanding recognition, Ateba has amassed a wide social media following and been portrayed as a victim of White House censorship among right-wing media sources. He did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. The White House press office declined to comment.

Ateba hasn’t said what questions he’s seeking to ask. In an interview with The Post last week, he didn’t cite anything specific.

The White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents reporters, declined to renew Ateba’s membership in January, citing a lack of evidence that he’s employed by a news outlet that regularly reports on the White House, according to a letter Ateba shared on Twitter. The WHCA also cited “repeated instances where your behavior violated the expectations for membership.”