As Fox News takes its front row seat, reporters complain about handling of briefings

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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At Tuesday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs joked about Fox News correspondent Wendell Goler’s newfound front row presence — saying to a female reporter behind him that she might have to ask Goler to duck down to see over him.

“Wow look at this: Sunday best, everybody in their new seats,” Gibbs said jokingly to kick off the briefing. “Church is full today. That’s good to see.”

For Fox News, though, a front row seat doesn’t mean Gibbs has to answer any more tough questions. In fact, White House Correspondents’ Association board member Julie Mason said the biggest benefit for Fox News getting the seat is that it now has better camera angles.

Mason, who reports on the White House for the Washington Examiner, was moved up from the seventh row to the sixth row in the briefing room in this weekend’s White House press corps musical chairs. She said the briefings are much more of a formality than most people think. Most of the reporting on the president happens behind the scenes and the press briefing room acts mainly as a stage for television news.

“I’m not a journalist who uses the briefing for newsgathering,” Mason said. “It [getting a front row spot] is better for them [television networks] because it’s an easier camera position.”

Llewellyn King, host of PBS television show White House Chronicle and a Hearst Newspapers columnist, who has been covering the White House since Richard Nixon’s administration, said Gibbs has been the worst press secretary he’s ever seen. One of Gibbs’ moves that rubbed King the wrong way was doing away with a morning “gaggle” for print reporters.

A gaggle is when a group of reporters asks a person questions all at the same time, allowing them access to more information and giving them a chance to actually talk to the news source, something most reporters in the White House briefing room don’t get to do on a regular basis.

“The first thing he [Gibbs] did was get rid of the gaggle,” King said. “There were no cameras at the gaggle – only questions and answers – aimed primarily at print people and it gave the day some structure before the main briefing, whenever it was.”

Mason said the lack of gaggling hasn’t raised tons of complaints from White House reporters, but when there’s big news, like the oil spill, it becomes an issue.

“I don’t think he’s officially done away with it [the gaggle], but he definitely doesn’t have an enthusiasm for it,” Mason said. “It doesn’t appear that he responds well to pressure.”

King and most other White House reporters wouldn’t have a problem with Gibbs not liking the gaggle if he answered everyone’s questions later on in the day.

“Gibbs takes questions almost exclusively from the first two rows [of the briefing room],” King said. “If you’re not in the first two rows, you might get a question. But, mostly, you’ll have your hand up and you won’t get a question.”

Mason said she doesn’t think Gibbs is easily fazed by reporter discontent, and that’s why he doesn’t mind doing whatever he wants to in the White House briefings. She said most reporters are waiting for the administration to start feeling the effects of low approval numbers, which, she said, has historically opened them up to more questions.

“It’s his briefing, he can run it however he wants,” Mason said. “It’s true that you can’t force him to do anything.”

King said all he and other reporters can do is complain about the situation until somebody listens and fixes it.

“These people are all trying to be defined by where they sit,” he said. “It has nothing to do with journalism of the higher purpose of it.”