With CNN Debate Hours Away, Multiple News Outlets Are Still Seeking More Access

The first presidential debate of the 2024 election is hours away, with CNN set to play host at one of its studios in Atlanta.

But as the clock ticks down to 9 p.m., multiple journalism groups are weighing in publicly, asking CNN to expand access to coverage of the event. While the debate will be widely available in real time, the issue in question is about access inside CNN’s building and studios in Atlanta.

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The White House Correspondents’ Association has released a letter from its president, NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell, asking CNN to allow a print pool reporter in the studio where President Biden and former President Trump will debate. Notably, there is no audience for the debate, limiting who is in the room.

While the WHCA noted that it appreciated CNN making its live feed available to other networks, and allowing for pool photographers in the studio, it added that there was more that could be done.

“WHCA has been informed that one print reporter will be permitted to enter the studio during a commercial break to briefly observe the setting. That is not sufficient in our view and diminishes a core principle of presidential coverage,” O’Donnell wrote in her letter. “The White House pool has a duty to document, report and witness the president’s events and his movements on behalf of the American people.

“The pool is there for the ‘what ifs?’ in a world where the unexpected does happen,” O’Donnell continued. “A pool reporter is present to provide context and insight by direct observation and not through the lens of the television production. A pool reporter is an independent observer whose duties are separate from the production of the debate as a news event. The pool reporter works on behalf of the entire White House press corps.”

O’Donnell’s letter followed a similar request from a number of senior editors at The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and Bloomberg, which also asked for a print pooler to be present during the debate itself, referencing a tradition of the print pool being present during newsworthy moments.

The print pool, in addition to being allowed into the debate room during a commercial break, will also be held in a room on site near the studio, and not in the press file where most other reporters will be located. That being said, those accommodations are clearly not seen as enough by the WHCA itself.

“As proud members of the White House Correspondents Association, we respect the role the organization plays and their support for press freedom and access,” a CNN spokesperson said in a statement. “CNN’s Presidential Debate is being held without an audience in a CNN studio and is closed to press. The feed was made available to Washington Pool Members, Washington Pool subscribers and CNN Affiliates, and is also available to embed via CNN’s YouTube channel without charge for digital outlets and is available on CNN.com. Following our traditional approach, CNN is providing access to the debate studio for a tight pool of photographers for the duration of the event and a larger group of photographers during a commercial break. In addition, CNN is providing access to the debate hall for the designated print pool reporter during the first commercial break to allow them to provide a pool report from inside the debate studio.”

And the letters about access to the debate studio itself also come as the National Association of Black Journalists sent a note to CNN asking for in-person access for local Black-owned media outlets.

“CNN Communications has told NABJ and other Black organizations, via a statement, that more than 800 journalists from around the world will be covering the debate onsite. The company stated that the application for credentials closed on June 7 and it could not accept additional requests after this date due to size and security restraints,” the NABJ wrote. “No matter the reason the local Black Press was not approved, in regard to guidelines, we are asking CNN to create space to ensure fair and balanced coverage so that all citizens have access to real-time content from the debate.”

While The Hollywood Reporter understands that there are Black-owned media outlets covering the debate on site, the issue in this case seems to be the request for credentials after the deadline had passed. Other outlets have also attempted to apply for credentials, with similar luck.

Security constraints are also an issue, with the Secret Service needing to vet all the journalists planning to attend the debate.

Despite the agita from journalism groups, with the credentialing window long closed, and with security costs and production plans set, it seems increasingly likely that the debate will proceed as planned, with the accredited journalists present, and a print pooler limited to the access already promised.

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