Answer Man, Reporting From the White House
Who was the first to start using the White House as a backdrop for live political reporting? Where do they broadcast from? Do they pay rent, and who decides who gets the best pitch?
-- Kenneth Payne, London
A television reporter standing in front of gleaming alabaster columns has become a familiar image, one that fills our screens whenever a network anchor "throws" a news broadcast to the White House. The ubiquity of that shot evolved as broadcasting equipment improved.
In the early 1960s, television crews filmed reports inside the press briefing room, said Bob Asman, who worked for NBC News for 32 years. Not long after he arrived at the White House in 1961, someone at NBC had the idea to move outside.
"We found a spot near a tree on the North Lawn," Bob said. "It gives you a beautiful shot of the North Portico, which is a good shot day or night."
The other networks followed suit. Advances in technology -- videotape, smaller cameras, live broadcasting -- made the shot less of a headache to set up and more common on the evening news. Over time, however, the weight of all those journalists and their equipment started to damage the tree's roots and the press corps was asked to move a little west, to the other side of a driveway.
Here, the problem was mud. During the Monica Lewinsky saga, some camera operators donned shrimp boots to keep from sinking into the mire. The area was neatened up with crushed bluestone, prompting the nickname Pebble Beach. In 2002, the Park Service upgraded the area with paving stones, inspiring a new nickname: "Stonehenge."
There's room for about 22 TV journalists on Stonehenge. As for which network or cable news outlet goes where, positions can change almost hourly, based on a complicated formula involving Nielsen ratings, advertising income and each correspondent's Q score.
Answer Man is joking. How the original positions near the tree were determined is lost in the mists of time. But when the corps moved across the driveway, they tried to replicate where they'd been. In a spirit of cooperation, they police themselves. Broadcasters don't pay rent, but they did contribute some of the infrastructure expenses during the various upgrades.
The North Lawn isn't the only place from which the White House is seen. News outfits also pay for access to the tops of such buildings as the Hay Adams Hotel and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on H Street. This produces a lovely shot: the White House hovering over the reporter's shoulder, the exclamation point of the Washington Monument in the deep background.