White House Correspondents’ Association President Kelly O’Donnell On Why Press Access To Joe Biden Matters & What To Expect At This Year’s Dinner: Q&A

As this year’s president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, NBC News senior White House Kelly O’Donnell will preside over one of the biggest evenings in D.C. — a mix of politicos, media types and celebrities airing live across C-SPAN and other networks.

But the issues that a WHCA president routinely deals with range from the weighty, like pushing for media access to the president and promoting the role of journalists in a free society; to the less earth-shaking but still important, like coping with plumbing issues in the tight confines of the press area of the West Wing.

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O’Donnell on Thursday marked 30 years with NBC News, a tenure that has included covering four presidential administrations, seven election cycles and numerous major events, including embedding with troops in Iraq.

She took a break this week to chat with Deadline about the dinner, the challenging times for many in the media, and the “direct correlation” between shouted questions at the president and limited access.

DEADLINE: Do you have a preview at all of what you’re going to what you’re gonna say in your speech?

KELLY O’DONNELL: My hope is that we can use this night overall to remind people about why a free press is so vitally important, especially in a campaign year. I want the night to also reflect on members. I want them to see themselves in the evening. When we gather for these White House Correspondents’ dinners, there’s always a lot of fun, a lot of energy, all of those good things. I wanted to also feel like it’s about the story of the press corps and why our work matters.

I also think, in the contested, difficult times we are in, where the world is on edge and there are conflicts that we all covering, all of those real things are present. We know it. We know it’s the backdrop of when we come together. But it is still important to celebrate great work, to talk about how we help the next generation of journalists through our scholarships, and how we help those in the press corps to have a moment to celebrate the fact that this work is important, and it’s necessary for democracy.

DEADLINE: Last year, the dinner came in the midst of a lot of layoffs in the news business. That is the case this year as well. How will you address that?

O’DONNELL: I believe that there are perils for our profession that come in all different forms, and layoffs and job anxiety are certainly on our minds. We know that within our own community of White House coverage, there have been cutbacks this year, and we will address that. We recognize it, and we want to encourage the public who believes in professionally gathered news to support news where you can. Do it at your local level. Do it with a subscription to your local paper. Do it by paying for an app to a news organization — any of those steps where the public can demonstrate that news is a product that is worth investing in because it matters to our society.

DEADLINE: How did you come to select Colin Jost as the featured entertainer for the dinner?

O’DONNELL: One of the great duties of being WHCA president is getting to choose the headline entertainer and I thought about it for a very long time. As a longtime NBC employee, I first looked at our gallery of talented stars, and Colin jumped out at me first and foremost, because he’s got the perfect set of skills for this night. He is a writer first, and all of our members can relate to that. He had been a reporter very early on as a student journalist. He gets it, and writing is the foundation of his whole entertainment career. Add to that he’s the longest serving Weekend Update anchor from the great tradition of Saturday Night Live, and he was my goal. And the fact that he said yes, and was willing to come and do it, was a complete home run for us. So the thing I am most confident about in all of the planning is that he will be terrific.

DEADLINE: That it is a tough gig for an entertainer because you are following the president.

O’DONNELL: That was part of what I sold to him, that in his vast entertainment career, there’s only one place where you follow the president, and it is a high bar, but it is a career making moment. And that’s part of what I wanted him to experience, that in his career, already filled with accolades, there’s only one place that lets you follow the president, and it’s the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. And so he recognized that there is a challenge and all of that. Comedians who come to the dinner always do. It’s not an easy room. We stressed that we want to see comedy that cuts across the entire political spectrum and right aimed at us to, the national media. Because of writing about current events week after week, writing about the personalities in the news in a funny way — I just think he is perfectly set up for a big night.

DEADLINE: A big part of your job is in pushing for access for the press at the White House. What has been the most challenging aspect of this?

O’DONNELL: To the outside world, the focus is often on the dinner because that’s the public thing that is fun and exciting that people see. The work of being WHCA president is every day, seven days a week, all year long, focused on issues like access for the media. Can we get our press corps in to see the president sign a critical bill? Can we get our reporters — not only the pool — but a broader group in the room to be able to question the president? When he has a foreign leader visit, we begin advocating in advance for access so that we can have opportunities to question a foreign leader as well. That’s very important when you’re talking about the kind of issues that have been happening with Ukraine, with Israel, where foreign leaders, partners to the president who are involved in these decisions. And for the American press corps to get to question them is a rare thing.

The difficulty is that each White House wants to control their own message, wants to control the events, and that’s a tug of war — a professional one, but it’s one we go back and forth on every single day. We would like as much access so that the public can see what’s really happening, and the White House has their own set of priorities that don’t always include how the press would like to cover an event. For us, it is not press for press sake. It’s press for the public record, for the American people so they have transparency.

DEADLINE: I often hear the White House and the Biden campaign say they want to “meet voters where they are.” Often that seems to mean non-traditional media. Does that rankle you and other reporters that maybe Joe Biden will be doing an interview with the Smartless podcast but not with the national press corps?

O’DONNELL: We certainly understand what attracts the White House, the campaign, or senior officials to those new outlets, and they are free to do any of that. However, our concern is the president’s time is perishable and limited, and if he’s going to interact publicly, we believe that we bring an expertise on the issues, a day-to-day knowledge of what’s happening, we have an audience. And we also have in our press corps the kind of historical journalism standards … at each of our news organizations. If you go to an entertainer’s podcast, there isn’t anybody fact checking that… It’s a different animal. The work we do comes with all of the rigors of good journalism. So we are fighting for that access. We have no problem with any outreach to different audiences. There’s value in that for them. That doesn’t limit our desire to get professional journalists, who are experts on the beat, in front of the president as often as possible.

DEADLINE: Do you have any indication of whether there might be another formal press conference coming up?

O’DONNELL: We advocate for that on a regular basis. We believe there should be more press conferences. We think it serves the president’s interest as well because he has a chance to speak through our coverage to the public. He can say it any way he wishes. He can answer any way he chooses. We would prefer more formal opportunities than shouting questions at the end of an unrelated event. We do that because we would like more access to the president. There’s a direct correlation between shouted questions and limited access. The more access you have, the less need there is to shout questions. Not that it would go away entirely, but venues where you can question calmly and clearly have a real value, and we’d like to see more of them.

DEADLINE: Could you explain to people what the laveteria is?

O’DONNELL: Yes. The founders did not have an ability to contemplate the kind of space the media needs to live and work in our area of the White House. So there is a section attached to the West Wing that is a combination break room and bathrooms. So people have their lunch, right where others are stopping in to make a visit. It’s a very, very tight space. So it’s a combination of lavatory and cafeteria.

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