In what might be the White House equivalent of a student government election, the James S. Brady Briefing Room was reshuffled yesterday following a more than two-week campaign among outlets vying for a better view of the Presidential seal. The third reshuffle in four years was made necessary when Helen Thomas stood down from her front row-center seat in June, leaving a hole like a missing tooth for Robert Gibbs to stare at for an hour or so each day.
By now you probably know who filled that gap—the AP shifted along the front row to take Thomas’s center seat and Fox News beat rivals Bloomberg and NPR to the front row vacancy left in the newswire’s wake. The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) nine-member board—the group to decide who sits where since the Bush administration gave up the reins—gifted the opening to Fox for its “length of service and commitment to the White House television pool.” It was a coup for correspondent Major Garrett and his conservative network, once viewed by some in the White House as an enemy combatant, and a move that puts Fox on the same level—or at least in the same row—as NBC, CNN, CBS, and ABC.
Just how did they manage to nab the briefing room trophy?
The WHCA board met to discuss a post-Thomas game plan soon after its own members were elected on July 15 (there are yearly elections for a TV seat, radio seat, at-large seat, etc., and this year the races got a little nasty). Time magazine’s Michael Scherer, who campaigned unopposed to win the magazine seat, says the process of reshuffling the briefing room officially began soon after that first meeting, with a call for letters to the board to take into consideration.
“We got a stack of letters from various members saying I want to move up, I want to move back, I don’t have a seat, I need a seat,” recalls Scherer. “But by far the biggest and most focused-on decision was who would move to the front row, because we had a front row vacancy. Bloomberg and Fox both expressed early interest, NPR added later interest.”
In one letter sent to the committee, Fox News VP Bill Sammon referred to a verbal agreement from 2007 he made with the WHCA. He wrote, in a letter obtained by Yahoo! News: “Now that Helen has retired, I’m hopeful the WHCA will make good on those assurances and approve Fox’s long-expected move to that seat…”
Noting that the other major networks had front row seats, Sammon described Fox as a “general interest news organization” and Bloomberg as a “financial niche news outlet.” Like a scorned Tracy Flick, Bloomberg hit back by writing, “We don’t believe the seat should be awarded on the basis of seniority, ideology, tradition… or discussions held years ago: it’s not something to be conferred.”
Despite this small flare-up, Scherer says there was little controversy in the weeks between the first board meeting on the matter and its second and final meeting yesterday. “A couple of early letters between Bloomberg and Fox were kind of sniping at each other but that went away,” he says.
Of the letters and phone calls that came in—not to mention the hushed conversations filling the Briefing Room’s corners—some of the most aggressive campaigning came after NPR entered the race. CREDO Action, a liberal activist mobile phone company—there’s a sentence you won’t read too often—lobbied in support of NPR with a petition, also backed by MoveOn.org. Politico reported yesterday that CREDO’s political director Becky Bond saw the WHCA board’s decision yesterday as a victory, despite NPR missing out on the front row. “We’re delighted the board found a way to avoid giving the coveted front row center seat to Fox,” said Bond.