The president now wanted stronger guarantees that these kinds of stories and these kinds of leaks from the press conferences would stop. He also wanted assurances that the press would control who attended these events, as all sorts of characters were gaining access, many of whom had minimal credentials if any.
Wilson had become so upset that he threatened to stop having the press conferences altogether. The Standing Committee of Correspondents, created in 1879 by congressional reporters, offered to control who had access to the White House press conferences and to regulate the way in which the conversations were conducted.
The journalists covering the White House were not happy. They feared losing easy access to the president and control over how they would interact with him. The correspondents decided to formally organize. On February 25, 1914, 11 reporters, most of whom were only in their twenties, announced the creation of the White House Correspondents’ Association. In their opening charter, the WHCA vowed to protect “the interests of those reporters and correspondents assigned to cover the White House.” Their first president was William Wallace Price, the oldest member of the group and a veteran reporter for the Washington Evening Star.
The formation of the association was not much of a surprise. This was a period in American history when all sorts of professions were creating associations to protect their internal integrity, and to make themselves stronger as a political force: the American Economics Association (1885), the American Psychological Association (1892), the American Political Science Association (1903), the American Sociological Association (1905), and older groups like the American Medical Association revamped into their modern form.
The WHCA didn’t have much of an impact in its early years. It was unable to stop Wilson in the middle of 1915, when he canceled press conferences as a result of growing tensions overseas. But Wilson reinstituted the press conferences by 1916. Because it was largely successful in the long-term at protecting their access and maintaining control over their own membership, the association moved on to handle other matters, including holding an annual banquet, now known as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which started at the Old Arlington Hotel in 1921.
At a moment in political history where the tensions between the president and the press have become extremely severe, and the president has been unusually aggressive in cutting off journalists from direct access to him in most of the conventional forums of interaction, it is worth remembering why the WHCA originally formed and what the association still does outside the dinner. The young founders of the WHCA cherished the potential of their profession, and understood how journalism could contribute to the national dialogue. Although journalists still believe in those goals in 2018, they now work in an environment in which the White House is making it increasingly difficult for them to do that work.
The celebrations this weekend surrounding the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, and the president’s counter-programming in Michigan, both serve as reminders of the origins of the association—and of the chilling effect when presidents decide that they want to build a wall between themselves and the reporters who try to keep the nation informed of what’s happening inside the nation’s capital.