After 19 months of making a scene, Simon Ateba finally heard from the White House this month.
In a two-page letter, President Biden’s press office warned Mr. Ateba, a Cameroonian reporter, in no uncertain terms, to cut it out.
What had Mr. Ateba, a White House correspondent for Today News Africa, done to deserve such an admonishment? There was a list of his misbehavior.
During a press briefing on June 26, Mr. Ateba “interrupted the press secretary” and “did not stop interrupting” other reporters. (“You’ve been discriminating against me for the past nine months,” Ateba had yelled.) On Dec. 8, 2022, he interrupted the press secretary and other journalists, actions that “required the press secretary to end the briefing.” (“Why is it hard for you to give me a question?” he had demanded.) On May 13, 2022, he “repeatedly interrupted colleagues.” It went on. If Mr. Ateba did not stop interrupting, the letter concluded, he might be barred from the briefing room altogether.
For the past year and a half, that cramped, 49-seat theater at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been the main stage for the Simon Ateba show — a protest act that has propelled him, the 43-year-old owner and apparently the sole employee of an obscure news organization, into the national conversation.
Through his persistent bellowing and disregard for decorum, Mr. Ateba has succeeded in getting under the skin of Jen Psaki, the first press secretary under President Biden, and now the current press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, making him a folk hero in the right-wing media. This year alone, he has appeared on Fox News, Newsmax and One America News Network, as well as the podcasts of the conservative media personalities Glenn Beck and Dana Loesch.
“I’m this African guy with no money and no big name behind me, and people love it when the little guy fights,” Mr. Ateba said in an interview last month.
“He’s a classic angry outsider,” said Tucker Carlson, the inflammatory, longtime Fox News host who was fired in April. “I hope I’m in a position to hire him one day.”
In Mr. Ateba’s telling, disruptive antics are the only way to get questions in during briefings that are dominated by the big U.S. news outlets. Mr. Ateba said he has wanted — but been unable — to ask questions regarding U.S.-Africa relations: about visits to the continent made by the first lady, Jill Biden, and by Vice President Kamala Harris; about growing Chinese influence in some African countries; and about the U.S. military’s Africa Command.
Mr. Ateba’s interruptions are also, he said, a rolling objection to what he feels is the condescending way he has been treated, as an African, by the White House press office, which declined to comment for the story.
Gadflies have always buzzed about the briefing room. Most famously, Lester Kinsolving, a defrocked Episcopal priest, asked bizarre and, only occasionally, important questions. (A right-winger, Mr. Kinsolving was the first reporter to ask the Reagan White House about the AIDS crisis, in 1982.) After Naomi Nover inherited her late husband’s press pass, she attended briefings at the White House until her own death at age 84, though she ran a news service with no clients and sometimes assaulted her colleagues.
But longtime observers of the White House press corps, as well as the other reporters around Mr. Ateba, insist that he is something different: a plain old jerk whose constant interjections are only meant to build his own audience, while depriving other reporters of the chance to inform the American public.
“Simon’s approach to the briefing room is unlike any I have seen from any other reporter,” said George Condon, a veteran White House correspondent for National Journal.
Still, Mr. Ateba’s approach is also a sign of the times, when an entrepreneurial outsider can gain a national platform by flouting longstanding norms of status and politesse.
A Move to Washington
The son of a fish trader, Mr. Ateba moved from Cameroon to Nigeria, where he worked for P.M. News and The News, a hard-hitting daily newspaper and an associated weekly newsmagazine that investigated the country’s military government in the 1990s.
“He was one of our best men,” said David Odey, who edited Mr. Ateba’s work at P.M. News. “If you sent him somewhere, you knew he would come back with a good report, no matter the difficulty.”
Mr. Ateba’s assignments sometimes put him in harm’s way. In 2009, he was beaten by a mob while reporting on corruption at a church in Lagos. And in an incident that raised international alarm, he was imprisoned for four days by the Cameroonian government in 2015 while reporting on a refugee camp for Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram.
In 2015, now armed with a national profile, Mr. Ateba struck out on his own as a news blogger. Two years later, he used his savings to move to the Washington, D.C., area to cover U.S.-Africa relations — in part because of his longstanding interest in the subject, but also, he said, because he had been traumatized by the dangers his job had exposed him to in West Africa.
“I felt like if I’m in the U.S., I won’t be attacked for doing my job, I won’t be kidnapped, I won’t be beaten up for taking pictures of a church,” Mr. Ateba said.
Mr. Ateba, who lives alone in a sparsely furnished basement apartment in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Northwest Washington, said that his first years in the United States were a cultural and financial struggle. He spent his time covering State Department, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Health Organization briefings, he said, and listening to audiobooks at the Cleveland Park Library.
“I went hungry many times,” he said.
After Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, Mr. Ateba decided to cover the White House. He said that he had been offended when President Donald Trump disparaged some African nations as “shithole countries,” and that he was excited to see the new president in office.
In the briefing room, Mr. Ateba joined a class of reporters who are allowed on the premises but don’t have permanent seats, often jockeying for back-row seats that stay empty when other journalists don’t show up. These reporters are rarely called upon during briefings. (Mr. Ateba currently has a “hard pass,” which confers regular access to White House grounds. In May, the White House announced that it was tightening requirements for the credential — a move that Mr. Ateba and others in the media saw as a response to his behavior.)
Mr. Ateba grew frustrated that he didn’t get to ask a question during the first months of the Biden administration, he said, and he asked to meet privately with Ms. Psaki. (Ms. Psaki did not comment for this story.) After the meeting, which Mr. Ateba recalled as being cordial, Ms. Psaki did call on him during a briefing, on Sept. 1, 2021. Mr. Ateba asked a friendly question about whether Mr. Biden’s detractors should apologize for calling him “sleepy.”
What followed, Mr. Ateba said, were several amicable months.
Then, in November 2021, the Biden administration banned travelers from eight southern African nations from traveling to the United States over fears of the newly identified Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The move drew criticism from public health experts, who said it was unsupported by science and appeared to scapegoat Africa, as the variant was already known to be spreading widely in Asia and Europe. In press briefings soon after, Mr. Ateba asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, and later in a combative exchange with Ms. Psaki, about the ban, which he called “racist.”
“You know that’s false,” Mr. Ateba said, accusing Ms. Psaki of inflating the number of cases in South Africa.
“It’s not effective to scream over your colleagues in here,” Ms. Psaki said.
Ms. Psaki and Mr. Ateba met privately again. As their briefing room exchange made the rounds on Twitter, Fox News invited Mr. Ateba to appear on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
“I wondered, is it in my best interest?” Mr. Ateba recalled. “Do I want to do this? Is anyone trying to use me?” Ultimately, he concluded that “the condescension was too much, ” and that it seemed to him that Ms. Psaki was happy to entertain his questions when they were deemed friendly, but quick to dismiss him when he asked a tough question that was squarely on his beat. He went on the air. On Dec. 3, he told the fill-in host, Jesse Watters, that if Mr. Trump had passed a travel ban only against African countries, he would have been excoriated as racist.
“Since then, we haven’t had a good relationship,” Mr. Ateba said of the White House press office.
Embraced by the Right
That puts it mildly.
Mr. Ateba’s loudest confrontations have frequently taken place at higher-profile briefings — during Ms. Psaki’s final turn at the podium, for example, when he repeatedly yelled over colleagues that he should be called on, and during a strange briefing in March that featured the cast of the Apple TV+ show “Ted Lasso”talking about mental health. (Afterward, members of the White House Correspondents’ Association received an email from Tamara Keith of NPR, then the association’s president, describing “an extreme breakdown of decorum” that “created a hostile work environment for everyone in that room.”)
His shouted questions have sometimes raised uncomfortable issues for the press secretaries. In February 2022, he asked Ms. Psaki whether she was trying to find a job on cable news. (Ms. Psaki now hosts a weekly show on MSNBC.) And in September 2022, he asked the White House national security spokesman John Kirby — who frequently briefs the press on the war in Ukraine — whether he was a “second press secretary,” a reference to speculation in the briefing room that the Biden administration does not trust Ms. Jean-Pierre with the full responsibilities of the job.
When Mr. Ateba first started interrupting other reporters, members of the media asked Ms. Psaki’s office to take action against him, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions. The White House considered it a better option to tolerate Mr. Ateba’s disruptions than to consider barring him — as such a decision would send a bad message about free speech and allow Mr. Ateba to turn himself into a martyr.
That seems to have happened anyway. “He has established a brand as a disrupter,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who has published several books about the relationship between the White House and the media.
In his right-wing television appearances, Mr. Ateba speaks softly, casting his outbursts solemnly as a First Amendment protest, and as a fight against discrimination.
“He’s great on camera,” Mr. Carlson said.
That Mr. Ateba’s resentment toward the press office resonates with the broader right-wing resentment toward elites may explain why his Twitter following has ballooned to nearly half a million. Mr. Ateba’s followers often cheer him on while he rails against the White House, which he said completely shut him out.
This isn’t entirely true. During a briefing in December 2022, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, took a question from Mr. Ateba, who asked Mr. Sullivan why Mr. Biden didn’t schedule one-on-one meetings with all of the African heads of state who attended the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. And by his own admission, Mr. Ateba has been called on twice during background calls with the White House press office.
On social media, Mr. Ateba has also criticized tenured reporters in the briefing room. In March, after Ms. Keith wrote to Today News Africa to complain about Mr. Ateba’s behavior, he blasted Ms. Keith on Twitter, posting and then deleting her phone number. Two days earlier, citing a lack of evidence that Mr. Ateba was employed by a news-gathering organization to report on the White House, the WHCA declined to renew his membership. (Mr. Ateba will not discuss the staff of his site, nor how much traffic he receives.)
“The forces of evil who felt belittled have removed me from the White House Correspondents Association,” Mr. Ateba wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Ateba’s income comes from several sources, he said, including advertising on Today News Africa, paid subscriptions to his Substack newsletter and his Twitter account, a donation campaign that he frequently promotes on Twitter, and ad share revenue from Twitter. (He declined to comment on how much he makes from these sources.)
Of late, Mr. Ateba’s output has focused less on U.S.-Africa relations and more on national politics — think Hunter Biden’s laptop, Mr. Biden’s age and Mr. Trump’s popularity — as well as himself. On a recent Thursday, a story about the Secret Service investigation into cocaine found at the White House led the homepage of Today News Africa. (The next two stories were about the White House’s warning to Mr. Ateba, and a response to a piece in The Washington Post about Mr. Ateba.) On Twitter, he recently compared attempts to discredit him to the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Ironically, the once-anonymous Mr. Ateba has achieved a public profile that far outstrips those of many of his colleagues with permanent seats in the briefing room. Mr. Ateba, a self-described moderate who said he used to have an image of former President Barack Obama as the background image on his computer, said he appreciates his supporters on the right.
“They see the truth in me,” he said.