Less than a month into the Trump administration, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, has upended some of the long-standing traditions surrounding the nearly daily conference with Washington reporters.
Who Sits Where
The 49 seats have been assigned by the independent White House Correspondents’ Association since 1981, largely because administrations of both parties wanted to avoid the appearance of favoritism.
The briefings in the first few weeks of the Trump administration have been packed, with many reporters who don’t have assigned seats standing in the aisles or sitting in empty chairs.
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Who Gets Called On First
In the past, White House press secretaries tended to prioritize the reporters sitting in the first two rows.
They would give the first question to The Associated Press (after decades of starting with Helen Thomas, long known as the dean of the White House press corps). Then it was on to the major networks, newspapers and other wire services.
Spicer has bypassed this convention.
As he goes around the room, Spicer typically calls on media organizations outside of the mainstream before getting to more traditional news outlets.
“There are voices and issues that the mainstream media sometimes doesn’t capture, and it’s important for those issues to get as much prominence as some of the mainstream ones,” Spicer said in an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News in late January.
The first briefing question of Spicer’s tenure went to a New York Post reporter who wrote a book that was critical of Bill and Hillary Clinton. LifeZette, a website founded by radio host Laura Ingraham, was first in the second briefing.
Reporters from conservative outlets like Breitbart, One America News Network and Newsmax are regularly tapped for questions.
Spicer also calls on non-mainstream outlets that might be more critical of the Trump administration, including American Urban Radio Networks, a minority-owned radio station, and Telemundo, Univision and other Spanish-language news outlets.
Other New Voices in the Briefing Room
Spicer has also awarded first questions to reporters in the new “Skype seats” that appear on two large flat-screens on either side of the lectern, including one to the CBS affiliate in his native Rhode Island. In addition to local TV networks, Skype seats have gone to conservative radio hosts and a Kentucky newspaper publisher.
Spicer routinely reaches out to foreign news media (though so far not for the first question). Raghubir Goyal, who says he is affiliated with a news organization called India Globe and whose tendency to veer off topic has been used by previous secretaries to defuse tense moments, has been called on twice.
Live, From Washington
“Saturday Night Live” vaulted the press briefing, usually reserved for C-SPAN-viewing news junkies, into the national spotlight on Feb. 4.
Melissa McCarthy, donning an ill-fitting suit, mocked Spicer’s habit of chain-chewing cinnamon gum, his scolding of the news media, and the flap over the news media’s – and Donald Trump’s – use of the word “ban” to describe an executive order.
The sketch devolved into McCarthy using the lectern to literally attack a reporter, and using a water gun filled with soapy water to wash out a reporter’s “lying mouth.” It didn’t go over too well in the White House, Politico reported.
If things get as heated as they did in the skit, well, he can always go to Goyal.