Press Secretary Jay Carney. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Press Secretary Jay Carney. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Macho throwdowns in the White House briefing room are common. They often feature Press Secretary Jay Carney v. Aggressive TV Guy over the Issue of the Day. A question is lodged, the exchange gets testy, other Aggressive TV Guys sometimes follow up with a mild variation of the explosive question — and video-friendly fighting results. So does lots of Internet sharing.

Always fun to watch. And more so when the topic of the man-to-man standoff is gender pay equity.

Today President Obama presided over “Equal Pay Day” at the White House, where he took a pair of actions designed to pave the way to greater gender pay equity in the workforce. One prohibits retaliation against federal contractors who share information about their pay, the better to allow workers — and particularly women — to determine if they’re being paid fairly; and the other directed the Labor Department to publish regulations to collect pay information from federal contractors.

“Here’s the challenge,” said the president at today’s event. “Today the average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. For African-American women, Latinas, it’s even less.”

Such contention set off an inquisitive frenzy once White House reporters convened with Carney in the briefing room. There are seven news orgs represented in the first row of that room: Reuters, AP, CBS News, NBC News, ABC News, CNN and Fox News.

Jeff Mason, representing Reuters, pressed the press secretary: “Jay, outside economists say that the data that the President is citing, the 77 cents phrase, is wrong. Regardless of the merits of this push, do you have better data?”

Carney took issue.

Jim Acosta, representing CNN, asked, “The numbers are a little bit all over the place, are they not? That number, 77 cents…”

Carney took issue.

Major Garrett, representing CBS News, asked, “Jay, would you just acknowledge that this debate is a bit more nuanced? I mean, as the briefing showed yesterday, you can pay everyone in a workplace the same for equal work and still have a median wage gap because of various choices, education, jobs held. And the Labor Department data says when you factor those things in, you get a wage gap that’s not $1 to 77 cents, but the difference can be as little as 5 or 6 cents.”

Carney took issue.

Ed Henry, representing Fox News, asked, “When it came to health care, the President himself cleaned up his words and said, ‘Look, I should have been more careful about if you like your doctor or if you like your plan, you can keep your plan.’ On this issue, when you’re acknowledging 77 percent is not exactly the figure, his own Labor Department is saying it’s not it, why does he continue — including today — why does he cite that figure when even you’re saying, well, it’s not quite that?”

Carney took strong issue.

Jonathan Karl, representing ABC News, asked, “Jay, I just want to clarify, come back to the pay equality issue. So the President cited Census data that women on average make 77 percent of what men make. Why is that an example or evidence of discrimination in the workforce at large, but it’s not evidence of discrimination with women here at the White House making 88 percent of what men here at the White House make?”

Carney took issue.

Peter Alexander, representing NBC News, asked, “I know in the front row we’ve talked about the 77 cents and 88 cents on the dollar conversation. I want to ask you specifically — I know in the White House if you work the exact same position you get paid the exact same no matter your gender. Some nonpartisan, nonpolitical organizations have done all sorts of studies on this and found, to quote them, ‘Once you compare men and women with the same background doing the same job and working for the same type of employer, they essentially earn the same amount throughout America,’ which is to say that this problem for people doing the same thing for the same amount of time is…”

Carney took issue.

At one point in the session, the press secretary strung together the pattern: “I want to commend the men aligning here in the front row and the interest they’re taking in this issue.” Upon completing this item, the Erik Wemple Blog will undertake extensive web and archival research to determine how often Mason, Karl, Henry, Alexander, Acosta and Garrett have pushed matters of gender equality to the forefront of national politics.

White House aide Jen Palmieri later tweeted:

 

 

Taken in isolation, the questions of these fellows make sense. The White House and its press secretary should indeed be pressed on the viability of the numbers they present in defense of their policies. PolitiFact and Slate have both vetted the 77 cents question that so animated today’s conversation in the briefing room.

Yet it’s clearly a journalism-industry gender moment when six men press a White House official on the same point and end up with the same answer from the man in front of them. Last week’s report from the Women’s Media Center on the status of women in American journalism found continued dominance by men in the flagship TV news programs (ABC News, NBC News, CBS News and PBS): They anchored 60 percent of news broadcasts and delivered 66 percent of reports, as judged during the final quarter of 2013. Bylines at Reuters and AP, too, favored men by a 68 to 32 percent and 57 to 43 percent, respectively. So even though top-tier outlets in the White House briefing room have women in their ranks — for instance, CNN’s Michelle Kosinski and NBC News’s Kristen Welker — bro-downs of the sort that went down today are always threatening to break out.

How would the briefing have differed if more women had occupied those precious front-row seats? We’ll never know. Upon the release of the Women’s Media Center study last week, the Erik Wemple Blog asked how more women in key positions would affect news content. Julie Burton, the center’s president, replied that when men dominate the reporting, the voices of women get excluded. “Who reports on the news is every bit as important as what the news is,” noted Burton. “There is also a ripple effect; if women reporters are given less prominence or their stories viewed as less important, this will trickle into who is picked to speak on TV, and who is in the public’s eye. Even who gets to determine what is newsworthy.”

Julie Pace, a woman with front-row AP, kicked off the questioning by asking about the politics of the gender-pay issue, not about the 77 cents issue. “You and other officials have been saying that this renewed focus on equal pay does not have to do with politics, but I’m wondering how that assertion squares with the President’s remarks today, which were sharply partisan in which he tried to draw a lot of contrast with Republicans.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.