Covering the White House is quite an experience. It’s a teamwork. No single media house or journalist can cover it. Many things are routine. The secret service monitors as you check yourself in using your White House hard pass and your pin number as your picture appears to the agents. Everything is scanned to ensure nothing dangerous gets in. You go in and say hi to the same people. It’s a small group of people and virtually everybody knows everybody.
There are always journalists with the president everywhere he goes, whether to church, to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, to see the Pope in Rome or to attend a climate change summit in the United Kingdom. Whether the President is going to Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown, for the weekend, or whether he is going to see a friend outside the White House, there are always journalists there.
Sometimes, there are many groups of journalists, those in Washington DC where the White House is located, who follow him to the airport, those traveling with him aboard Air Force One, those who wait for him at his destination, and those who wait for him to return to the White House, no matter how late it is. Journalists do not leave the White House until a lid is called. That means, the president is retiring to his private residence and there are no more public engagements. The White House sometimes calls a lid at 1 a.m. It’s a minute by minute work. It’s hard work.
That routine continues for days, for weeks and for months, until there is a big news that may last weeks. As a big story breaks out, everyone begins writing about it. Often, it’s not a good story for the White House, so the White House bombards journalists with different press releases, different positive reports, how unemployment is going down, how Americans are getting vaccinated, they throw everything they can to the wall, hoping something sticks, the White House does all it can, trying desperately to break the news cycle. That’s what happened during the Afghan debacle.
But most times, the story does not go away, so the White House tries harder, brings in guests to address journalists, the president delivers a speech, and the White House selects top officials to tour various networks on Sunday morning. This continues until the bad story goes away and the good or neutral story or a crime story begins to dominate the news.
Sometimes, like now, the White House takes a bad decision by quickly banning African nations over an Omicron variant with scant information. And even when it becomes clear that it was a bad decision, the White House does not change it, if opinion polls show that people are backing it. The White House tries to defend it. It brings in respected doctors like Anthony Stephen Fauci to explain why the decision was taken. He’s on different networks convincing Americans that it was the best decision to take. He does this until people begin to believe it!
Covering the White House and seeing everything that is being done to control the dominant narrative, to influence opinions, makes you appreciate good journalism even more. It even makes you appreciate every journalist who simply asks the right and tough questions to the authorities.
Without those journalists, whistleblowers, activists and opposition figures, the country would know only a single story, a single narrative, a lie. The current lie is that African nations are banned to buy time to stop the spread of the Omicron variant. It’s false. The variant is everywhere. The administration knows that banning only African nations has nothing to do with science or slowing the Omicron variant.
It’s simply to control the narrative, it’s to pretend to be doing something, to tell the American people ‘we are working hard to protect you.’ In reality, the government knows that would not change anything when people from everywhere else where the variant is present continue to travel to the United States. But it’s important to send the message to the American people that the government is working very hard for them.
Watching the Biden administration at close range from the White House has been interesting. There have been great moments with the inauguration and successful transition of power, and there have been really low moments with the lowest being the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after a 20-year war, and the killing of U.S. service members and Afghan civilians by a suicide bomber at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in late August.
There has been rising hope that COVID-19 would soon be a thing of the past with the approval of vaccines in record time, and there have been heartbreaking days with mounting deaths and a recent tragic milestone on Tuesday that at least 800,000 Americans have died of COVID.
That meant that the number of Americans who have died of COVID under President Biden now equal those who died under former President Donald J. Trump. On his last full day in office on January 19, 2021, at least 400,000 Americans had died of COVID-19. Now, at over 800k deaths, President Biden has sadly matched the record number of deaths under Trump, even with his mass vaccination programs.
On foreign policy and Africa in particular, there have been many attempts to reset ties between the United States and Africa under Biden. The Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken recently completed a three nation tour of Sub-Saharan Africa where he tried to reassure African allies that the United States would continue to be there for them, and that “America is back” and “diplomacy is back” at the center of U.S. foreign policy agenda.
There has been mass distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to help Africans fight the coronavirus and three African heads of state from Kenya, Zambia and Ghana have visited the White House. One of them, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, was received by President Biden, while the two others were hosted by Vice President Kamala D. Harris.
Yet, there has also been Ethiopia and the failures there. The United States government has failed to bring both parties together and sanctions and threat of sanctions have not accomplished anything. In fact, atrocities have continued, the war has worsened and the killings have multiplied. For African nations watching it all, the failures in Ethiopia may be taken as a signal that the United States might be in decline.
In Sudan, there have been mixed reactions. The Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was removed from power and then reinstated following pressures from the United States but there is instability as the country remains controlled by both the military and civilians.
Then, there has been President Biden’s travel ban on only African nations over the Omicron variant first detected in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong. That travel ban has remained in place, including in countries with zero cases of the variant.
It has also remained in place even though the variant has already spread in the United States, it has remained in place even with credible reports that Omicron was already in several parts of the world before it was detected in Africa.
The Biden travel ban on southern African nations has also remained in place even after the United Kingdom lifted its own senseless ban on 11 African nations over the Omicron variant. That has complicated relations between the United States and African nations. That has complicated relations as many Africans see it as discriminatory and not based on the science President Biden pledged to follow.
The Biden administration is only roughly 11 months in office and every administration takes time to mature and learn from its mistakes.
Many things may change between now and 2024. But that change will only be possible if the administration can acknowledge its mistakes, revoke the travel ban, re-assess conflict resolution in Africa and listen to African stakeholders, including African journalists, in their decision making processes.
Simon Ateba is the White House Correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington DC