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Simon Ateba, the reporter making himself the story at the White House

Simon Ateba was at it again the other week. As White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre addressed journalists during her daily briefing, Ateba spoke up, out of turn. He was a victim, he insisted, of “discrimination” because Jean-Pierre hadn’t called on him to ask a question.

Jean-Pierre frowned wearily. “If this continues, we’re going to end the press briefing,” she said, as Ateba’s fellow reporters began to argue with him. “You’re being incredibly rude.”

The brief outburst wasn’t unusual. On several occasions over the past year, Ateba has interrupted Jean-Pierre and her predecessor, Jen Psaki, to demand that he be called on. In March, he interrupted a briefing room photo op with the cast of “Ted Lasso” to insist that Jean-Pierre take his question. His complaint was met with shouts of “Let it go!” and “Decorum, please!” from his fellow journalists.

Ateba’s repeated demands for recognition — unusual even in a press room with a long history of memorable characters — have frustrated both press officials and the organization that represents reporters, the White House Correspondents’ Association.

At the same time, Ateba’s behavior has made him a rising star on Twitter and YouTube and a darling of right-wing media outlets. Fox News, the Daily Caller, Breitbart, among others, have portrayed him as a victim of censorship by the Biden White House and the “liberal” mainstream media. In an interview before being fired by Fox earlier this year, Tucker Carlson described Ateba as “the one guy in the room who asked real questions.”

Except it’s not really clear what questions Ateba has been seeking to ask. His serial interruptions typically begin and end with a protest about how the press secretary hasn’t allowed him to ask his question.

In an exchange of emails this week, Ateba declined to say what information the White House has denied him. He also declined to meet for an interview or to speak over the phone about himself or his publication, Today News Africa, for which he appears to be the sole writer-reporter. He said he would respond to questions via email but then ignored most of those sent to him. He didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

In his brief comments to The Washington Post, he wrote that his efforts to report on the White House “have been met with racism and discrimination from the Left, as well as misleading articles that fail to address the underlying story of discrimination against me.”

This echoed his previous public comments about his pressroom dust-ups. After his most recent run-in with Jean-Pierre, he tweeted repeatedly about it. “It’s a pity what’s going on,” read one. “How can @PressSec preach about the freedom of the press when she is violating the First Amendment many died to protect?”

After the White House edited out his exchange with Jean-Pierre from the official video of the briefing, Ateba went into high gear. “The fraud level is unbelievable,” he tweeted in all caps after officials blamed a technical “glitch” for the edit, which was later restored.

Ateba, who was born in Cameroon, has told colorful stories about his exploits as a journalist. As one of his tweets from January summarized it: “Attacked by pirates on the Gulf of Guinea with an AK47 to my head, kidnapped in Nigeria, dumped in the woods & left for dead, arrested in Cameroon during investigation & kept in dark cell only to be sidelined at the White House …”

News accounts corroborate some of this. According to multiple reports, Ateba, then based in Nigeria, was arrested in Cameroon in 2015 by military authorities while investigating living conditions for Nigerian refugees in northern Cameroon. He was accused of spying for the Boko Haram insurgency group and held for four days before he was released.

There was no independent verification of the other parts of Ateba’s tweet in a search of news sources in the Nexis database.

White House press officials declined to respond on the record about Ateba. But the administration’s attitude was signaled in May when it proposed rules about “professional” conduct by journalists with the credentials to enter the White House complex on a routine basis, including a proviso about “not impeding events or briefings on campus.”

It said those in violation of the proposed standard would be warned at first, followed by revocation for repeat offenses.

While the proposal doesn’t mention Ateba by name, it might give the administration a tool to discipline him while avoiding the legal jeopardy that the Trump administration faced when it banished CNN reporter Jim Acosta and journalist Brian Karem from the White House complex in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Courts quickly restored their access, ruling that the White House lacked any formal standards or process for barring credentialed journalists.

As it happens, one of the reporters who challenged Ateba during an outburst earlier this year was Karem, a columnist for Salon.

“He seemed more interested in calling attention to himself than asking a question,” Karem said in an interview on Wednesday. “I told him, ‘You’re wasting all of our time. Just ask your damn question and stop making it all about yourself.’”

Karem points out that many reporters don’t get called on during briefings. They can still seek responses from White House staff before or after the formal briefing, either in person, by phone or email.

He notes, however, that many ambitious reporters may prefer the public platform of the televised briefings.

In fact, Ateba has asked questions and received responses from Biden officials in other settings, such as untelevised briefings involving National Security Council adviser Jake Sullivan and before first lady Jill Biden’s trip to Africa in May. Before chiding him for interrupting her during her final press briefing in May 2022, Psaki called on him several times in that setting over the previous year.

The White House Correspondents’ Association admonished Ateba last year when he was a member of the organization. “There is no right of any reporter to be called on by any official,” then-president Steven Portnoy of CBS News Radio wrote in an email to Ateba obtained by Mediate. “Preventing your colleagues from asking their questions is no way to seek relief.”

The association took no action at the time but declined to renew his membership in January, citing a lack of evidence that he’s employed by a news outlet that reports on the White House, according to a letter Ateba shared on Twitter. (Ateba has said that he does not receive a salary from Today News Africa.) The letter also cited “repeated instances where your behavior violated the expectations for membership.”

Ateba went public with his dispute with the correspondents’ association, at one point tweeting the phone number of Portnoy’s successor, Tamara Keith of NPR, along with photos of her. He soon deleted those tweets. Keith declined to comment.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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