Answer Man, Reporting From the White House

By John Kelly
Sunday, October 5, 2008

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.

Several outfits go to the roof of 1620 I St. NW, where (unless there is lightning) a company called Mobile Video can accommodate six correspondents simultaneously.

"It's all there," said Andrew Steele, BBC Washington bureau chief. "They provide the camera, the sound man, everything for us. All we do is send the correspondent over there and they go live basically from that position."

The bigger question is: Why? Why bother with a shot like that? It's not as if the White House ever looks different. Said Andrew: "You have to convey some sort of iconic image of where you are. It gives you a sense of place, tells the viewer we are where this story is, not simply sitting in a studio in London. Television is, after all, pictures. You've got to get the best picture to explain the story."

Craig Allen, a University of Arizona journalism professor, is fed up with the clich├ęd White House stand-up. "The stand-up gives the impression that reporters are there ceaselessly digging out news when in reality they're there to get the next news release, pretty much," he said. "They have no access to the president."

What's more, Craig thinks the North Lawn stand-ups can damage the reputation of U.S. journalists abroad.

"You can imagine when [foreign viewers] tune into CNN and see the CNN correspondent standing in front of the White House, what the effect of that is," he said. "It makes it look like the reporter is a shill for the U.S. government and is basically touting the party line. . . . It looks like the networks are part of the government and are espousing what the government wants as news."

Perhaps, but don't expect to see that shot go away anytime soon.

Make Answer Man earn his money. Send a question toanswerman@washpost.comor John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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