“There is a long history here,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, adding that the concept goes back to President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He noted that even in the 1980s, local news anchors enjoyed more trust than national reporters, and that trend has only intensified.
The White House also may benefit from offering access to outlets that are unaccustomed to interacting directly with top White House aides, he said.
“If you’re the White House, you’re talking to people who don’t cover these things all the time and may not know what the nuances are and may ask easier questions,” Rosenstiel said. “There’s some star factor that you’ve got the White House press secretary or, God forbid, the president of the United States on your air.”
The White House provided The Washington Post with a preview of the new media strategy.
“Local and coalitions media have always been at the heart of the White House’s communications strategy for showing the public how the president is delivering for them,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “Now the press team is taking the next step to make sure we’re speaking to every corner and constituency in America.”
Karine Jean-Pierre, Psaki’s principal deputy, has already begun conducting monthly briefings for regional outlets. The White House also plans to bring in reporters who cater to Hispanic, Asian American, Native American and Black audiences as well as religious, LGBTQ and women’s outlets. Psaki also plans quarterly meetings with foreign press.
And the White House plans to add an additional virtual seat to the press briefing room. The room is currently limited to 14 journalists because of covid-19 restrictions, but on Fridays a regional or specialty reporter will appear on a screen behind Psaki and will be able to ask questions. On Friday, a reporter from Indian Country Today is scheduled to hold that seat.
Psaki has already started the rotation, adding an Alaska-based reporter to a recent briefing. He asked whether the administration will waive federal rules that require many foreign cruise ships to stop in Canada before docking in Alaska, a major issue in the state.
After muddling through some technical difficulties, Psaki offered a characteristically generic answer, citing the administration’s work with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
“We have been working with Senator Murkowski and Alaska officials on engaging Canada and finding ways to assist the cruise ships,” Psaki said. “That’s a process that’s ongoing.”
The quote made it into the 28th paragraph of an in-depth Anchorage Daily News piece on efforts by state politicians to push for a waiver to the cruise ship law.
The idea of opening the White House briefing room to local press is not new — President Donald Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, used Skype to pipe local journalists into the briefing room, and also reached beyond traditional media to conservative outlets.
That was intended partly to change the tenor of the briefings, Spicer said in an interview.
“The White House press corps has this bubble mentality, where they’re all going to ask the same thing,” Spicer said. “And I think when you get into regional reporters, you get questions about issues that are affecting Americans in their communities, as opposed to the palace-intrigue stories.”
Welcoming regional outlets into the briefing room served an additional purpose, he said: “When I started, I made it clear that the Washington Beltway media wouldn’t be in charge anymore.”
The Obama White House also deployed top administration officials to walk regional reporters through major policy initiatives. Still, those sessions at times occurred only after details about the agenda items had been selectively leaked to national outlets.
Another reason a White House may desire local news coverage is that the audience is often not as hardened in its views of national issues as viewers who consume national news.
Consumers of local media, Rosenstiel said, are not “hardcore” in their political beliefs — those viewers tend to focus on outlets like Fox News or MSNBC. “They don’t represent the far right of the Republican Party, they’re people who are malleable or are open-minded on some issues,” Rosenstiel said, giving the White House an extra incentive to reach them.
Biden’s team also emphasized local news during his presidential campaign, at times ceding the national airwaves to Trump and his bombastic rallies as Biden quietly made his case one local market at a time.
But if the Biden campaign assumed those interviews would feature only softball questions, they found out otherwise.
During one stretch of the campaign, many of the local interviews Biden gave included a question about his position on defunding the police, an issue the Republicans were pushing.
During another period, Biden faced repeated questions about overhauling the Supreme Court, another issue he was trying to avoid talking about.
“It’s a legitimate question,” he told WBAY, a station based in Green Bay, Wis., on Sept. 22. “But let me tell you why I’m not going to answer that question.”
Eventually, Biden’s repeated refusal to answer questions on the court dogged him, forcing him to promise to appoint a bipartisan commission to propose changes to the Supreme Court if he won.
Matt Viser contributed to this report.