President Trump cares about what’s on Fox News; he tweets a great deal of the network’s material, especially from its morning show “Fox & Friends.” Trump’s supporters care about what’s on Fox News; it’s where they’ll find supportive commentary from the likes of Sean Hannity and many others. The Erik Wemple Blog cares about what’s on Fox News; denouncing its frequent abominations and proclaiming its occasional glories are part of this job.
There’s another group that cares more than ever about what’s on Fox News: correspondents hunkered down at the White House, seeking interviews with top officials.
“It’s generally, like, you just watch Fox and run outside,” says a White House correspondent.
Keeping tabs on the No. 1 cable-news network helps fill a basic need for White House reporters: Quotes, feedback, clips, audio. That’s because officials like press secretary Sarah Sanders and counselor Kellyanne Conway are highly partial to doing live interviews with Fox News. From the start of the government shutdown (Dec. 22) until last Friday, Sanders did eight interviews on Fox shows of one sort or another (including Fox Business and “Fox News Sunday”) and two on other networks, including an appearance last Friday on CNN, according to Media Matters for America.
These sessions often force Sanders & Co. out of their White House lairs and into the crosshairs of the mainstream media. If the White House press corps, for example, learns that Sanders is doing a “Fox & Friends” interview on the White House lawn at 8:15 a.m., it can take up positions nearby in the hope of lobbing a few questions once she’s done. In an interview on “Fox & Friends” last Wednesday, Sanders herself referenced the arrangement: “I stopped last night after I finished an interview where I took questions. ... I’m sure I’ll do that again here in a few minutes,” she said.
Newshounds are familiar with the Q-and-A sessions that Sanders referenced. The White House official walks up to a cluster of waiting reporters, cameras and microphones and takes a number of questions:
Those opportunities, however, don’t just drop from the gloomy winter sky. Someone has to figure out when Sanders is going out to chat with Fox News. Then someone has to hustle the equipment out the door and set it up. And then someone has to make sure that Sanders, once she’s done with her interview, presents herself to take questions before ducking back into the White House.
“They regularly are on Fox and because they have to come out on the driveway ... If you want on-camera answers to your questions, you have to set up on the driveway,” says Eamon Javers, a White House correspondent who has been with CNBC since 2010. White House reporters can enter the offices of White House communications staffers — Sanders and Hogan Gidley, for example — but they can’t run their cameras in those areas. Outside, though, is fair game. According to Javers, the reportorial scrum formerly shadowed White House officials as they walked back inside from their TV interviews, but that got messy: Cameras and audio equipment and bodies often got tangled up. So the crew established a beachhead of sorts on the driveway near the spot where the officials reenter their workspace.
White House reporters have long chased officials around the complex, of course. These days, though, it’s a higher-stakes proposition. “In past years, you’d see a handful of reporters buttonholing administration officials back and forth to live shot positions. But now, it feels like the bulk of the White House press corps is trundling after nearly every official who comes out on the driveway,” says Javers. Such are the exigencies of these times: Sanders’s absence from the lectern has helped the Trump White House establish an all-time record lapse in on-camera briefings. "Look, we’ll see what happens,” she said when asked on “Fox & Friends” whether she was done with this former staple of White House accountability. Gidley, for his part, said on Fox News that his colleague Sanders would resume briefings “when she finds a reason to do that.” Apparently she hasn’t yet found the informing-the-public reason.
Deprived of regular briefings, White House correspondents scramble to attend these impromptu sessions on the driveway. There’s an “informal grapevine of which officials are going on Fox News at what time,” says Javers, adding that other networks also get in on the act. Camera operators share gossip with reporters and producers. Schedules materialize on the fly. The chaotic chase-and-ask scene has come to resemble reporting on Capitol Hill, notes Javers, where reporters are forever scrumming and waiting and tailing lawmakers in pursuit of reaction quotes.
The reward for all this hustle on the White House grounds is meager: The extemporaneous “gaggles” feature a lot of shouting, the same non- and half-answers from Sanders and, given the setting, even less chance for substantive exchanges than in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. Another drawback is that the gaggles give Sanders and other officials a better chance to inventory the questions being shouted by reporters, the better to ignore ones they don’t like.
We asked Sanders on Friday why, if she boasts on Fox News about being available for gaggles, she doesn’t just do the briefings. We didn’t receive a reply by press time.
Olivier Knox, president of the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA), has pressed the White House to stage regular, traditional briefings — such as the one last August with Sanders and Pentagon officials who handle the repatriation of remains of U.S. soldiers who fell in the Korean War, a development stemming from the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit of June 2018. “That was one of the best briefings I’ve attended at the White House ... and that’s the kind of briefing we can’t replicate on the driveway,” says Knox.
When the briefings existed, there was considerable debate about their value. Actually, the debate centered on precisely how dubious was their value, given the lies, the dodges and the we’re-short-on-time chicken-outs. “Send the interns,” counseled New York University media guy Jay Rosen. Others advocated a media boycott of the briefings.
Wherever you stand on this spectrum, a reality is emerging from the White House: Whether the setting is a scheduled, substandard briefing or a nonscheduled sub-substandard gaggle on White House asphalt, reporters seek answers. That’s what they do.