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Skype seats are a mixed blessing in their debut at White House media briefings

White House press secretary Sean Spicer fielded questions from four remote journalists during a media briefing Wednesday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The debut of virtual seats in the White House briefing room Wednesday delivered on the promise of new perspectives — but also showed how the Trump administration could use the inclusion of remote questioners to its advantage.

Virtual seats in the White House media room could serve the public interest — or just serve Trump

Nine days after White House press secretary Sean Spicer said media briefings would soon feature four of what he called “Skype seats,” the first journalists to join a Q&A session via video link included local television reporters from Rhode Island and Ohio, a conservative radio host from Oregon who endorsed President Trump during the campaign and a newspaper publisher from Kentucky who also backed Trump.

These were their questions:

Kimberly Kalunian (WPRI, Providence): Just this week, the mayor of Providence, R.I., began calling our capital city a sanctuary city. As we know, President Trump's executive order says the White House will begin publicizing a weekly list of these municipalities and pledges to withdraw federal grant money from them. What I'm wondering is, is how soon we can expect to see this list and how soon should cities like Providence expect to see their federal funding cut?
Natalie Herbick (WJW, Cleveland): Secretary Spicer, thank you so much for this rare opportunity. I appreciate it, and I'm learning the ropes. I'd like to quickly ask two questions, if I may. The first one being: President Trump has been quick to take action on several issues he's addressed along the campaign trail, and with that in mind, he made a stop here in Cleveland, and he said that he would like to make cities like ours the economic envy of the world — a bold statement. So our viewers would love to know an example — a specific example — as to how he plans to do this sooner than later.
Lars Larson (“The Lars Larson Show,” Portland): Commander Spicer, it's a pleasure. Thanks for your service to America, and thanks for the opportunity. I've got a broad question: The federal government is the biggest landlord in America. It owns two-thirds of a billion acres of America. I don't think the founders ever envisioned it that way. Does President Trump want to start returning the people's land to the people and, in the meantime, for a second question — since that's in fashion these days — 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?
Jeff Jobe (Jobe Publishing, Glasgow, Ky.): Thank you for allowing me to be part of today's White House press briefing. 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. So my question is: How soon, or when, will the rules restricting coal mining, coal burning and coal exports be reversed?

Okay, so, Larson's greeting for “Commander Spicer” was a bit much, but all four questioners made thoughtful inquiries on subjects that their respective audiences care about — subjects that might not have been raised by the Washington-based journalists who occupied the 49 physical seats in the briefing room. That is the best possible use for these virtual seats.

The problem was that Spicer did not offer straight answers to any of the questions. And because the questioners were quickly disconnected, they had no opportunity do what the reporters who sit before Spicer do every day — follow up and press for more details.

Spicer spoke generally about why Trump wants to end sanctuary cities but provided no clues about when a list of cities might be published or when funds could be cut off. He talked about the president's desire to rebuild “inner cities” and bring back jobs but gave no specific example of how Trump plans to do so in Cleveland.

Spicer said using the United States' natural resources is part of comprehensive energy plan but did not address logging or federal land ownership. And he said that clean coal is part of the president's plan to create jobs and make the United States energy independent but did not say when concrete policy goals might be achieved or even pursued.

Essentially, Spicer used the new Skype seats to give himself four chances to recite vague talking points without being challenged by a journalist.

There is potential for remote questioners to make meaningful contributions to White House press briefings — the first four certainly tried — but, so far, that does not appear to be what the White House really wants.