Ever wonder what the White House briefing room is really like? Here’s a view from the second row.

On Thursday, President Obama showed up in the White House briefing room to tout the latest enrollment numbers for his health care law. And I had a second row seat.


The view from the second row. Photo by Katie Zezima

Since 1970, the media has gathered in the briefing room most days the President in is Washington -- usually to listen to the White House's spin of the day courtesy of press secretary Jay Carney and to ask him questions. (When the president travels the briefing is done on Air Force One.)

That iconic podium -- and the presidential seal slapped on it -- is all most people know of the place. It's what you can see when you on TV and what every show about politics uses to symbolize the power and prestige of the place.

But, there's more to the press briefing room than just that podium. Here are few things you might not know about where the press works and administration communicates with the public in the White House.

1. The place is small. Very small.

Palatial digs they are not, despite what the room looks like on TV. The briefing room itself is basically a small space with ten(or so) rows of auditorium-like seats that fold down. Like at the movies, someone's head is probably in your line of sight. Seats are assigned (the Washington Post sits in the second row) and take up most of the room, making it hard to maneuver before and after the briefing.

In the back of the room there's all sorts of audio and video equipment, and TV cameras are set up behind it. There are also cameras to the right of the podium. White House staff sit on chairs that line the left wall -- near a door that leads to a den of offices where the White House press staff resides.

The briefing room is, in the parlance of real estate agents, "garden level." Once, while in the press area on Halloween, I saw a bunch of people in costume  -- only their disembodied legs visible -- walk by. It was an odd welcome to the White House, to say the least.

2. It's an office. Kind of like every other office in the world.

Yes, it's the home of the leader of the free world and symbol of America, but the White House is also an office for lots of people, including the press. It has all the trappings of a place where people put in their 9-to-5 (who are we kidding, it's more like a 24/7): coffee makers, vending machines, old desks and, rumor has it, a mouse or two.


Coffee. Image courtesy of Katie Zezima.

The press area itself -- where we all work -- is laid out like a shotgun  shack; a long hallway with small white plastic desks against the left wall. To the right there's what look like closets (or at least I thought so on my first trip.) Turns out those are offices for the larger operations. If they're six feet wide that's a lot, and journalists sit back-to-back. The room opens up in the middle; to the right is a square setup where photographers sit and a hallway to the left leads to the bathrooms and the aforementioned vending machines. (A tour of the press area is kind of like a tour of your first apartment out of college; you can do it by standing in one place and pointing, and you keep mentioning the same five or so "highlights" of the place.)


Desks in the press area. Image courtesy of Katie Zezima.

Despite the cramped quarters -- or maybe because of them -- the press area is always bustling. People are chasing stories, working the phones or rushing to file stories, posts, photos or video. The one hitch? There's no Wifi in the press area or the briefing room. Or on Air Force One. News organizations must supply their own.

3. No, journalists can't freely roam around the White House. 

Your press pass gets you inside the White House gates, but essentially confines you to the briefing room, the press offices and the offices of the White House press staff. There are also spots on the walk between the gates and the briefing room where television crews do live shots and, closer to the actual building, a spot where newsmakers speak after a meeting in the White House. If there's an event in another part of the White House, say a ceremony on the South Lawn or press conference in the Rose Garden, the press is given permission to move around -- albeit it with chaperones. The same rules apply under other circumstances, such as an interview a news organization has set up or a special briefing; you need special permission to move outside of your assigned route. There's no wandering into the Oval Office, as much as we would all like to.

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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