To most Americans, this little breach of decorum may seem harmless. As my colleague Dave Weigel tweeted, “Nobody at home gives a crap if they call on the big [mainstream media] organizations.” But Spicer's eagerness to toss out the traditional playbook is important in more ways than one, particularly in connection with something else he said Monday that received far less coverage.
As part of the new regime in the briefing room, Spicer said the White House will be setting up four online “Skype seats” for reporters from outside the nation's capital to participate in the daily news conferences. By logging in remotely, many regional or local news outlets may get the chance to interact directly with the president's staff.
“I think this can benefit us all by giving a platform to voices that are not necessarily based here in the Beltway,” Spicer said.
Skype Seats for WH Press Briefing is actually a great idea.— 🗽 (@Anthony) January 23, 2017
The White House already allows out-of-town reporters to come in and ask questions, said Martha Kumar, a retired professor of political science at Towson University who has written several books on the presidency.
“The rules for day passes are very loose and have been used by bloggers and news organizations you never heard of,” said Kumar. “The rule has been to let in as many people as possible who are in the press community as broadly interpreted. So having people come in through Skype fits in with what has normally been done.”
But the addition of Skype seats represents a technological upgrade to that precedent, potentially expanding White House access to a vast swath of the country that until now may have lacked the time, manpower or money to send a reporter to the nation's capital. In that respect, the remote videoconferencing could mark a historic turning point, both for the media and our democracy, experts say.
Whether you're a liberal or a conservative, the idea of expanding access to the press briefings is a good one, some media experts say. It potentially gives more power to the public to keep politicians accountable, said John Tisdale, an associate journalism professor in the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University, and brings more diversity to the White House press corps. It also potentially levels the playing field, giving smaller outlets that may not be able to send a reporter to Washington a shot at competing with bigger media outlets. The press briefings could also act as a way for less prominent outlets to elevate local issues to the national stage.
But, he warns, the experiment could go quickly off the rails without strong ethical and professional guidelines. How the Skype seats are put into practice will go a long way toward determining whether the project ultimately strengthens our public discourse. One telling indicator? Who gets to select the publications that can claim the seats, said Tisdale.
“I would be wary of having the White House pick these out,” he said. “If the White House controls it, I think they're going to use it as a political tool.”
This is where Spicer's initial preference for what Tisdale called “more Trump-friendly” outlets could have an important effect. In an increasingly fragmented media world, Tisdale said, the Trump administration may find it tempting to give the Skype seats to fringe bloggers or outlets that are likely to ask softball questions and run out the clock for everyone else.
Asked on Monday how the outlets would be selected, a deputy press spokesman from the Trump administration did not seem to know.
“We'll have more for you as we roll this out,” the spokesman said.
So how should a system like this really work?
To ensure that the selection process works fairly and representatively, said Tisdale, an ideal approach would establish a lottery that could be managed independently of the White House itself. You would want input from members of the White House Correspondents' Association, newspaper groups from middle America and the southwest, broadcast TV organizations and other media groups.
In addition to determining what kind of outlets should be eligible for the Skype seats, this self-governing group of journalists would also need to decide how to select among them. Should the system be weighted toward rural outlets? Outlets whose communities are disproportionately affected by whatever is in the day's news? Some mixture of both? For example, said Tisdale, if the Keystone XL pipeline is in the news (which it is), perhaps you'd give a news organization from Sioux Falls, S.D., one of the Skype seats for the day.
“The idea of having four people from a Nebraska TV station, a newspaper from Bismarck and a blogger from New Mexico is really a good idea,” said Tisdale. “Implementing it fairly and to where everyone has a representative voice is going to be a difficult task.”
David Nakamura contributed to this story.
Correction: A previous version of this post identified John Tisdale as an associate professor at Texas Christian University's Schieffer School of Journalism. In fact, he is an associate professor at the Bob Schieffer College of Communication.