White House ‘Skype Seats’ offer fodder for local journalists

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White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer interspersed four “Skype Seat” questions throughout yesterday’s briefing. Those questions—from TV news reporters based in Rhode Island and Ohio, a conservative radio show host in Oregon, and a publisher in Kentucky—were the first of their kind in the briefing room, where Spicer previously announced the Trump administration’s plan to invite questions from journalists outside of the Washington, DC area.

The first Skype questions failed to pull specific answers from Spicer, even when they were preceded by flattery (and, in one instance, a “Commander Spicer” greeting). None of the Skype Seats were afforded a chance to follow up; only Lars Larson, an outspoken Trump supporter whose radio show airs on dozens of affiliate stations throughout the country, managed to ask two questions, both of which revealed his preferred answers. A week ago, a piece in the Washington Post referred to the Skype Seats plan as a “really good idea”; after the briefing, a piece by Callum Borchers downgraded the Post’s enthusiasm to “a mixed blessing.”

But journalists working at the state and local levels—particularly in those states where voters ignored by the national press upset poll projections and elected Donald Trump—should take care to watch the Skype Seats. Yesterday’s briefing brought meaningful regional concerns into the briefing room, albeit in terms friendly to the Trump administration. Questions from the Skype Seats also provided plenty of opportunity for reporters to follow up, which some journalists took advantage of. And while none of Spicer’s responses gratified, the questions he took—however slanted—provided reporters with insights into issues that guided many Trump voters, so long as reporters were willing to look.

 

 

Kim Kalunian, a reporter for East Providence, Rhode Island’s WPRI, used the briefing’s first Skype question to build on her station’s recent coverage of Providence’s “sanctuary city” policies. In the days before the briefing, WPRI aired segments that clarified Providence’s “sanctuary city” status and enumerated how the city spends those federal funds that President Donald Trump threatens to suspend.

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Kalunian asked Spicer when the Trump Administration will begin to release its weekly list of sanctuary cities and implement penalties. Spicer framed Trump’s pledge to cut funds as an effort to unburden taxpayers, and told Kalunian to “Expect further updates…on how that list will come out and when it will come out.”

Spicer’s failure to answer might suggest that Kalunian’s question was wasted. However, WPRI’s treatment of the exchange is an important reminder that a news outlet’s job doesn’t end after a single question. Kalunian’s question led WPRI’s 6pm newscast, and the reporter noted that Spicer “did not provide a precise timeline,” then followed up with the Providence mayor’s office for comment.

More important for future “Skype Seat” holders was Kalunian’s characterization of her exchange with Spicer. In her segment, Kalunian noted that she “would have liked to ask a follow-up question,” but that Spicer “quickly said ‘Thank you’ and moved on.”

Natalie Herbick, who co-anchors the 4pm news for FOX8 in Cleveland, Ohio, told Spicer she had two questions. For context, she revisited a comment Trump made at a Cleveland Heights campaign event, in which Trump expressed a desire to make Cleveland “the economic envy of the world.” Then Herbick asked Spicer for “an example, a specific example, of how he plans to do this sooner than later.”

Spicer merely offered a general reference to “the things that we can do, tax-wise and regulatory-wise,” and named seven companies whose corporate headquarters are located in other states. Spicer did not wait for Herbick’s second question; instead, he moved on to ABC News’ Cecilia Vega. Herbick later answered a few questions via Twitter about her exchange with Spicer. “I was unable to get the second question in,” she told CBS News’ John Bat. She also offered that her question “was not pre-screened and was my own based on his local campaign stops.”

The occupants of the final two Skype seats came from self-proclaimed Trump supporters who pegged their questions to natural resources. Lars Larson—a conservative talk show host in Portland, Oregon, who endorsed Trump in March, claimed that he had a Trump flag in his studio, and says he’s moved “light years to the right” since he began his radio career—greeted the press secretary as “Commander Spicer,” which prompted a head shake from Spicer. Larson then shoehorned two questions and some editorializing into his exchange.

“The federal government is the biggest landlord in America,” said Larson, who then added, “I don’t think the founders ever envisioned it that way.” After asking whether Trump desired to start “returning the people’s land to the people,” Larson put forth a second question that sounded more like a request: “Can he tell the Forest Service to start logging our forests aggressively again to provide jobs for Americans, wealth for the treasury, and not spend $3.5 billion a year fighting forest fires?” Spicer replied that the confirmations of Trump’s nominees for Interior and Energy department leadership positions will help the administration “look at those natural resources that we have and figure out how to best utilize to benefit not just our energy, but also economic growth opportunities with that.”

As with Kalunian’s question to Spicer, coverage of Larson’s exchange didn’t end in the briefing room. In a story for The Oregonian, Lizzy Acker mentioned Larson’s “Commander Spicer” bit but moved quickly to parsing Larson’s logging request and, in doing so, gave local news outlets a potent example for how they can qualify, critique, and build on a short briefing room exchange to better inform their audiences.

In her story—one of the most popular on OregonLive this morning, with 2,500 comments and counting—Acker reminded readers that “the current Forest Service plan…already includes harvesting of resources while maintaining the forest.” She also linked readers to The Oregonian’s coverage of a 2016 study that attributed 16,000 square miles of burned forestland to “human-caused climate change.”

The last Skype question went to Jeff Jobe, whose family-owned company publishes weekly newspapers in five counties in South Central Kentucky. (The website for Jobe Publishing, Inc. boasts that each of its papers has 80-percent market penetration and “a [combined] reach into a population of more than 90,000 South Central Kentuckians.”) The electorate in those five counties cast 31,000 votes for Trump; in each county, Hillary Clinton took less than a quarter of the vote.

“How soon, or when, will the rules restricting coal mining, coal burning, and coal exports be reversed?” Jobe asked. Spicer used the question to speak generally to Appalachia ( a region Jobe claimed as his home) and name several states whose economic histories depended in part on coal. “Bringing the production of clean coal back is good for our energy independence, is good for our economy, is good for job creation,” Spicer replied. So-called “clean coal” isn’t something that can be brought back: Snopes called clean coal “more of an idea than a reality” and, as Grist reported during the presidential debates, “the promises of ‘clean coal’ projects have not been fulfilled.”

Before the briefing, Jobe told CNN’s Dylan Byers that he had endorsed Trump. When Byers asked what Jobe wanted from his exchange with Spicer, Jobe replied, “I want it to be of value to my state and to South Central Kentucky.” Byers followed up on Twitter:

 

 

Which raises the question: What, if anything, can local reporters provide to the voters they serve when given a virtual seat in a White House briefing?

That two of the four Skype seats went to outspoken Trump supporters raised plenty of concern—as it should. After the briefing, the Lexington Herald-Leaderwhose daily circulation in Kentucky topped 64,000 in 2015—published a story by McClatchy reporter Brian Murphy that ran down a few Twitter objections to how Jobe and Larson used their access.

 

 

But it’s meaningful when a Trump-supporting publisher in Kentucky tosses the press secretary a softball question about coal regulations. We’ve only seen one day of Skype Seats in the briefing room, but those seats have already opened a portal into the guiding concerns of Trump voters and the tactics of those people that provide them information. Larson’s show airs five days a week, for three hours a day, in plenty of counties that elected Trump. Jobe has his five counties; one, Butler, is part of Kentucky’s Western Coalfield, which produced nearly 26 million tons of coal in 2016. The questions from Jobe and Larson may have been “Trump-friendly,” but they also show how media outlets in places like central Kansas frame issues for their voters.

And, as reporters like The Oregonian’s Acker demonstrated, there’s an opportunity for other journalists to use weak exchanges to strong ends. Reporters in Kentucky can parse Jobe’s question and rhetoric, and use their conclusions to generate new story ideas; indeed, they must. National news outlets are still looking for new ways to put reporters in places they overlooked during the campaign season, but there are plenty of journalists who are already there, and have the potential to win new audience members by providing critical coverage. It’s vital that more news sources take notice of what those people in the Skype Seats have to say—that is, before the press secretary ends the call.

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Brendan Fitzgerald is an associate editor at CJR.