The Daily Mail is in. BuzzFeed and Breitbart are out.
On one hand, the reorganization is merely a quadrennial exercise in bureaucratic reshuffling, the grown-up equivalent of assigning new desks in a middle-school homeroom.
But the assignments have practical and symbolic import, too. An assigned seat stands as a marker of a news organization’s prominence — quite literally, given that a seat in the first few rows ensures the greatest visibility. Not only are these spots the most camera-friendly for network TV correspondents, they also increase the odds of getting a question answered during crowded briefings, especially when the president makes a rare appearance.
“Look at the pictures of the first year of briefings in the Trump presidency,” said George Condon, a veteran White House correspondent for the National Journal (fifth row, far right). “[It’s] jampacked. If you didn’t have an assigned seat you had a really tough time getting a question in or even covering it. Plus, presidents since George H.W. Bush have done news conferences in the briefing room. Having an assigned seat is essential for those.”
There’s also the small matter of convenience. Reporters who don’t have an assigned seat must stand aside, physically and figuratively marginalized. Such “aisle people,” as reporter Brian Karem once dubbed his cadre of seatless colleagues, are prohibited from using the small workspaces behind the briefing room to write or produce stories; those are reserved for the press room’s seated gentry.
The new lineup will be in full force as soon as pandemic capacity restrictions are lifted, possibly by next week. The WHCA has periodically limited the number of reporters at briefings to just 14 as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus; in December, the group urged President Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, to move the briefings online.
Psaki nixed the idea.
Under normal circumstances, the lack of an assigned seat wouldn’t keep a reporter out of the briefing room. Any journalist can apply to the White House for entry and is likely to be admitted if they pass a Secret Service check. But where one sits in the room says much about where one’s news organization stands.
The WHCA’s new seating chart doesn’t mess with the existing power structure. Traditional front-row denizens remain in place — the leading TV networks, and the Associated Press and Reuters news services. So does the second-row lineup of major print publications (The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today).
But the chart now looks much different than it did the last time seats were handed out.
Notably, the WHCA has expanded the number of news organizations with assigned positions to a record 65 — and 14 of them are first-timers. It did so by splitting up seats in the middle and back rows among 30 news outlets. Reporters from the BBC and Newsweek, for example, will take turns occupying a spot in the last row, as will correspondents from the Daily Caller and EWTN.
The goal, said WHCA President Steven Portnoy of CBS News Radio (second row, left side), was to reflect “the changing nature of the press corps and the country the press corps covers.”
And so seats have now been set aside for religious broadcasters (Salem Radio Networks, EWTN, the Christian Broadcasting Network); for news outlets aimed at Black audiences (the Grio, American Urban Radio Networks); for those that broadcast in Spanish (Telemundo and Univision); and for a cadre of conservative news sites (the Washington Examiner, Washington Times, Daily Caller and Newsmax). The Washington Blade is the first LGBTQ-oriented publication with an official seat. Outfits that didn’t exist a few years ago, like the streaming network Cheddar News are in the mix, too.
Some 20 years ago, Portnoy said, many of the seats were occupied by reporters from regional newspapers. But a number of those papers — like the New York Daily News, Newsday and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — no longer have reporters assigned to the White House beat full time. And some, such as Knight Ridder and Copley News Service, no longer exist.
The new setup accommodates several news organizations based abroad, such as Al Jazeera, Agence France-Presse and the BBC, and reserves one spot in the third row for a rotating “foreign” correspondent. But some international outlets that wanted in didn’t make the cut, such as Tass and Turkish news organizations.
Portnoy wouldn’t discuss the reasons for any specific rejection, but said the WHCA gave priority to news organizations with broad reach, and to those that regularly attend briefings and travel on presidential trips. (BuzzFeed News failed to make the cut because it missed the application deadline, which a spokesman, Matt Mittenthal, said was because of a communications foul-up).
The WHCA began making the assignments in the early 1990s, taking over the job from the White House press staff, said Condon. The White House “really didn’t want to take the flak for picking among us,” he said.
President Donald Trump, conversely, had no such qualms as the pandemic set in and the presidential campaign heated up in 2020. Defying the WHCA’s newly imposed capacity limits, he invited representatives from such reliably Trump-friendly outlets as One America News, the Gateway Pundit and the Epoch Times to the briefings. The WHCA complained, to no avail.
One America didn’t apply for a seat in the current configuration, which is probably fine by the WHCA. The journalists’ group in 2020 took the rare step of voting to remove the network and its reporter, Chanel Rion, from the room after she repeatedly attended briefings in defiance of the pandemic restrictions. She stayed despite the WHCA’s vote.
At another point, Trump’s press staff sought to remove CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins from her network’s assigned seat in the front row, ordering her to switch with a reporter who sat in the back. Reporters protested that Trump was attempting to punish a reporter whose questions he disliked. Collins also stayed put.
Although spats among reporters over their seating assignments have occasionally flared, Condon said the biggest fight broke out in 2010 with the abrupt retirement of the legendary Helen Thomas, who had covered the White House since the Kennedy administration.
As a result of her seniority and as a measure of respect, Thomas sat front-row center during briefings, and was the only reporter with a seat assigned to her personally, not just to her news organization. When the seat opened up, a fierce lobbying battle between news groups ended with Fox News getting the chair and moving up to the front. The seat is now occupied primarily by Fox News reporter Peter Doocy, whose daily exchanges with Psaki have sometimes produced fireworks.
Some reporters roll their eyes over the jockeying for position.
Karem, who now writes a column for Salon.com, said his previous employer, Playboy magazine, was turned down for a permanent seat in 2016, though he was never sure why. Regardless, Karem attended many briefings as one of the “aisle people” during Trump’s presidency. He even defied the WHCA and stood at the back of the room last year when the organization imposed its pandemic limits.
“To be honest, I like standing instead of sitting,” he said. Sitting in an assigned seat “felt like I was back in school. . . . The truth of the matter is, as long as you have access to the room, it doesn’t make any difference.”