Dale Jackson describes himself as several things — a radio personality, a TV talk-show host, “an entertainer” — but “reporter” isn’t on his list. In fact, it may be the last thing he wants to be known as. Jackson calls the journalists who cover the president “a bunch of partisan Democrats.”
Yet there he was — virtually — among a roomful of reporters, piping in from Athens, Ala., to question White House press secretary Sean Spicer during Spicer’s daily briefing for the news media in February. Jackson took a quick jab at the assembled journalists (“the elite media bubble,” as he phrased it) before launching into a question about when President Trump planned to end two Obama-era immigration programs.
The morning host at Athens radio station WVNN is among the unusual cast of characters who have joined the daily briefings. Using Skype, the video-call app, the White House has extended the daily question-and-answer sessions for the first time to people in far-flung locales. The innovation, Spicer said in an interview, “has been very successful bringing in additional reporters beyond the Beltway.”
Except that many of the people who have occupied the “Skype seat” aren’t reporters at all.
Like Jackson, many have been conservative talk-show hosts who are receptive to, or openly cheering for, Trump’s agenda. Since Spicer initiated the calls, he has taken questions from the likes of nationally syndicated radio personalities Lars Larson and Michael Medved. Questions have also come from regional hosts such as Bryan Crabtree of Atlanta, Adriana Cohen of Boston, Joyce Kaufman of Miami and Steve Gruber of Lansing, Mich.
The newbies have made little attempt to conceal their points of view, their enthusiasm for Trump or simply their contempt for the news media.
Jobe began his question at the inaugural Skype briefing in February with this preamble: “Clearly, anyone paying attention will see that President Trump is aggressively acting on his campaign promises. This in itself gives hope to my state and particularly the region in which I grew up, Appalachia. We’ve seen countless politicians make promises at both state and national levels, and not only forget us, but to turn on us.” He then asked Spicer about Trump’s plans to deregulate the coal-mining industry.
Larson wanted to know when Trump planned “to start returning the people’s land to the people. . . . Can he tell the Forest Service to start logging our forests aggressively again to provide jobs for Americans, wealth for the Treasury and not spend $3.5 billion a year fighting forest fires?”
Crabtree, who wrote a column in October asserting that “America as we know it is done” if Trump were not elected — thanked Spicer for “taking questions from a talk-radio host right here in Georgia and not in the D.C. swamp.”
Perhaps the most polemical question came from Stevens, the history professor: “What are the president’s future plans for rolling back the expensive and burdensome regulations of the administrative state, most of which are the product of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who never received the consent of the governed to do anything, let alone make law?” he asked.
Spicer introduced Stevens as a representative of the Federalist Paper, but that appears to be a sideline. Stevens has written for a conservative website based in Nevada called the Federalist Papers Project, though he seems not to have written much. The site’s archive lists just two articles by Stevens, one of which was his account of asking a question at the briefing (Stevens didn’t return calls and emails seeking comment).
Several veteran White House journalists say privately that Spicer has used the Skype calls to bolster the number of Trump-friendly participants in the briefings — a claim that Spicer flatly denies. He notes that some of the toughest questions he faces each day in the press room are from reporters representing conservative-leaning publications such as the Daily Caller, Breitbart News and Newsmax.
Instead, including non-journalists reflects the notion that “media and journalism has evolved and there are all sorts of components to it now,” said Helen Aguirre Ferré, the White House director of media affairs who oversees the Skype program. “We’re trying to open it up a bit. This is an opportunity for a more diverse set of voices to participate.”
To be sure, Skype has enabled the White House to solicit questions from actual journalists who would otherwise be unable to attend a briefing in Washington. Among others, reporters from TV stations in Cleveland, Miami, Phoenix and Cincinnati have all used the technology to question the press secretary.
Some of these reporters said that White House personnel recruited them as participants. John Huck, an anchor at KVVU-TV in Las Vegas, said officials contacted him via email in February and asked if he’d be interested. “All they said is that they thought I would be a good fit,” Huck said. “I have no idea how they even knew who I was, unless my credentials were on some White House file left over from the campaign or the previous administration.”
Huck asked Spicer about how Trump intended to address banking problems that have hurt the Las Vegas housing market.
Reporter Kimberly Kalunian of WPRI-TV in Providence, R.I., said that a White House press official, Lindsay Walters, called her the day before she appeared to ask if she wanted to participate. She eagerly said yes.
“When I was asked to participate, I was told that my connection to Rhode Island, Mr. Spicer’s home state, was part of why I was selected,” Kalunian said.
Huck, Kalunian and another Skype participant, Neil Vigdor of Hearst Connecticut Media, said White House officials didn’t ask what they intended to ask Spicer. “Under no circumstances would we have agreed to that type of arrangement,” Vigdor said.
Spicer denied that the White House has solicited participation in the Skype calls — “we don’t recruit people,” he said — but that assertion was contradicted by Ferré.
“The only way early on to get the message out was by talking to local reporters,” she said in an interview. “We asked them, ‘Would you be interested in participating?’ We did it with the intention of letting people know it’s an opportunity.”