A look at the race for the briefing room front seat

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 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.

Scherer said that at yesterday’s meeting the board went through the briefing room row-by-row, working out what he calls “the domino effect” of moving any one outlet forward. In the end, along with Fox and the AP’s gains, Politico and the American Urban Radio networks lept forward to the third row, while The Washington Times slid back one row to the fourth. The Financial Times got a seat for the first time and a seat was allocated in a rotating capacity for a foreign press pool reporter.

“There was a formal vote at the very end of the meeting, as much as everyone was just agreeing as we went,” Scherer says. “There were three news organizations that had made very good cases for why they should get the front seat. It was a very close decision. Even though it was a tough decision, it wasn’t a contentious process. The decision by the board was by consensus.”

For Scherer, who sits in the fifth row, second seat from the left, the jockeying isn’t only about status—“the television networks want their guy to be in the front row.” Lately, it’s also about getting your questions in. “In recent years it’s become more important because Gibbs tends to go in order in the briefing room, and that was not always the case,” says Scherer. “He will start at the front row, then go to the second row, going across. So the closer you are to the front the more chance you have for an early question, or to have a question. By the time you get to the fifth or sixth row, you’re hoping for time at the end of the briefing.”

Ultimately though, the briefing room is all a lot of show and tell. The chess game beneath the podium does little to change the fact that Gibbs rarely says anything truly newsworthy, and, as Scherer points out, the real action happens behind the curtain, in the less frequently reshuffled White House offices. “A significant amount of reporting doesn’t happen in the briefing room,” says Scherer. “It’s just a structured time to put the White House on record.”

Correction: The original article stated that “CREDO lobbied on behalf of NPR.” We have amended this to read “lobbied in support of NPR” as NPR was not itself involved in the petitions. The piece also stated that NPR had a “lack of advancement” when it in fact moved from the third row to the second row, center, just behind the AP. A typo, “reigns,” also corrected.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.