WASHINGTON – It’s all about the shoes.
At least, that’s what it looks like, from the front row of the White House press briefing room.
Those shoes could pay for a year’s salary.
That’s the improbable but still inescapable thought, while staring at the line of incredibly well-heeled footwear adorning the network reporters in the front row.
It’s so clearly the shoes that separate the haves from the have-nots.
The rich and famous from the ink-stained wretches. The famous television reporters from the grubby school of small fries packed into the world’s most televised sardine tin. Those wearing makeup from those just trying to make deadlines.
But it’s not the shoes that provide the most fascinating view while standing against the wall, adjacent to the front row.
It’s the faces.
When WND began covering White House press briefings on a regular basis after the election of President Trump, the daunting logistics of the overcrowded and antiquated indoor swimming pool turned indoor press pool immediately became self-evident.
Fireworks between mainstream media reporters and the administration’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, had made press briefings must-see TV, and the tiny space was packed on a daily basis like never before.
There were only 49 seats in the oversized doll house that is the White House press briefing room. And those were all assigned. And with dozens of additional reporters lining the walls, the only way to get an unobstructed view of the proceedings was to arrive early enough to secure a place to stand against the wall in the front row.
The hope was that standing in such a prominent position might catch the eye of the press secretary. Getting called upon to ask a question is the Holy Grail quest of most every reporter in the room. Some reporters are genuinely curious and want insightful information. Some want face time. Some want both. Old timers just want a good story.
Newbies refer to getting called upon the first time as losing their virginity.
The reporters from the big outfits, plus a few favorites, almost always get called upon. The rest get scraps.
Although much was made of Spicer calling first upon smaller conservative outlets during his earliest briefings, there was no real change.
The gaping maw and endless appetite of the mainstream media are always well fed.
WND quickly realized, more important than being seen by the press secretary was being able to see the press corps.
Odds were slim of being called upon (although it does happen) no matter where a reporter of a relatively smaller outfit stood. But, by standing in the front row, one could see the whole show: not just the press secretary, but also the expressions on the faces of every reporter.
Every reporter who writhed in agony as the press secretary refused to apologize for what the press considered the president’s latest unpardonable sin.
Every reporter who contemptuously demanded to know when President Trump would drop the charade of pretending President Obama had spied on him.
Every reporter who furiously demanded to know how a congressional committee had dared obtain evidence that Obama’s administration had spied on Trump.
Every furrowed brow. Every eye roll. Every pursed lip.
Every evil eye.
It was a great show. Just missing the popcorn.
How to boil a press frog
Then suddenly, one day, without anyone really noticing, the show was over. Or, at least, put on hiatus.
Things just weren’t what they used to be in the press room. No more major food fights.
From the freewheeling, vein-bulging, eye-popping shouting matches of the Spicer days, an almost eerie calm had descended under his successor, Sarah Sanders.
When ABC White House reporter Jonathan Karl raised his voice on Friday and indignantly demanded an answer to a question, it suddenly seemed like old times.
“What did the president mean when he said there were very fine people on both sides?!” Karl yelled at the woman two feet in front of him. “Who were the very fine people who were protesting with the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville?!”
The answer seemed kind of self-evident: Those who were not neo-Nazis.
But, having already answered one of his questions, Sanders didn’t even bother to respond. She just said she was pressed for time and moved onto another reporter.
Despite Karl’s protests, “It’s the key question – it’s why Gary Cohn is upset,” it wasn’t really a substantive question.
If it had been, the next reporter called upon would’ve extended the professional courtesy of then asking it again to Sanders.
And Karl isn’t just any reporter. He was just voted president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, last month. That’s the group that just happens to assign the seating in the briefing room. So, if there were one reporter in the room the others might defer to, it would be Karl.
But the other reporters knew the game. What Karl asked wasn’t really the “key” question. Except to him. It was the kind of gotcha question designed to provoke a sharp response and make for a fiery sound bite on the evening news. It was the journalistic equivalent of a poke with a sharp stick.
Except Sanders didn’t flinch. And that simple non-response symbolized something that was suddenly the new normal.
A reporter raising his voice was now the exception. It used to be the rule.
Spicer probably would have been more inclined to argue Karl’s point, perhaps because he was so often and so visibly irritated and exasperated with what the administration would consider grandstanding for the cameras by reporters.
But, where Spicer was more likely to engage reporters in debate, and even loud and pointed arguments, Sanders has proven more likely to shut them down, politely but firmly. And definitively.
(Raw cell phone video from a reporter’s perspective shows just how packed the press briefing room can get during the Trump era.)
Still, it’s not just the changing of the guard at the podium that has made such a drastic difference.
WND noticed a series of stealthy but significant changes in the way the administration has dealt with the White House press corps over the last few months.
Those changes were gradually but steadily installed after the White House press office came under severe criticism for not being on the same page as the president in reporting the reasons for his firing of FBI Director James Comey on May 9.
Although the changes have been small and generally subtle, added up together, they have effected a rather large and dramatic change: the virtual taming of the White House press corps.
And the restoration of civility to the daily White House press briefings.
These were the changes the White House made to the daily press briefings after the second week of May:
- More Sanders, less Spicer
- Fewer briefings on camera
- Shorter answers, sometimes
- Sometimes, no answer (but an IOU)
- Shorter notice on start times
Most of those changes evoked little more than murmurs and mild complaints from the press corps, as they were eased in over a period of weeks.
With one major exception.
The increase in something called a “gaggle.”
A gaggle is just a regular press briefing. Except … there’s no cameras.
And taking a camera away from a television reporter can be like taking an oxygen tube from a space walker. It’s their lifeline.
And they didn’t take to it kindly, at all.
Network reporters complained. Vociferously. The howling could be heard loud and long.
After a few weeks, CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta was so vexed, he virtually equated his loss of face time with an attack on the freedom of the press.
On June 19, he tweeted:
“Make no mistake about what we are all witnessing. This is a WH that is stonewalling the news media. Hiding behind no camera/no audio gaggles.”
“There is a suppression of information going on at this WH that would not be tolerated at a city council mtg or press conf with a state gov.”
“Call me old fashioned but I think the White House of the United States of America should have the backbone to answer questions on camera.”
He also complained loud and long on camera about losing camera time, wondering on air, “You know, if he (Spicer) can’t come out and answer the questions and they’re just not going to do this on-camera or audio, why are we even having these briefings or these gaggles in the first place?”
Acosta was wrong about the audio. Which was significant. Audio recording of the gaggles was, in fact, allowed, to have a public record of the meetings and to confirm the accuracy of the questions and answers. The White House just wasn’t allowing the live broadcast of the audio. Afterward was fine.
To Acosta, it somehow all amounted to “stonewalling the news media,” and “a suppression of information.”
In reality, no information was suppressed. There were still press briefings. There was just less Acosta on television. And fewer televised appearances by other network reporters.
And, as time went by, fewer barbed questions. And fewer shouting matches. And more civilized give and take.
Things calmed down. As did Acosta.
Once all the changes took effect over the course of a few weeks, the difference inside the briefing room became inescapably noticeable to anyone paying attention.
WND described to a senior adviser to the president how cordial the atmosphere had become, with actual substantive discussions of the issues having eclipsed outbursts by reporters playing to the cameras.
The White House official’s jaw literally dropped upon hearing the news, and he silently mouthed “Wow,” while gently shaking his head.
The gaggles had perhaps the most pronounced effect in turning down the heat, but once the average temperature at the briefings had dropped, the White House resumed allowing cameras at most briefings.
Coincidentally or not, almost all briefings have been on camera since Spicer resigned on July 21, when his former deputy, Sanders, took his place.
Yet the atmosphere has remained relatively calm during briefings.
The effects of the other changes were perhaps more subtle.
Sanders had already begun to conduct more briefings after May 9, as Spicer held fewer. She has been simply less combative while just as assertive.
Whereas Spicer would fight back against reporters jibes, she has more often refused to engage them in prolonged arguments, politely but definitively blunting insulting barbs and putting an end to unpleasant topics with unambiguous declarative statements.
A prime example of that was on display Thursday when a reporter asked for a response to comments made by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., that the president has not “been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.”
Sanders sharply replied, “I think that’s a ridiculous and outrageous claim and doesn’t dignify a response from this podium.”
Sometimes Sanders has no answer at all. If she has not spoken with the president about a particular topic she will issue an “IOU” of sorts to a reporter, and promise to get back with an answer when she has one.
A common Sanders refrain has become, “I’ll find out and get back to you on that.”
That keeps her and the president on the same page, and it largely prevents the media from trying to exploit any discrepancies, real or imagined.
Similarly, if the president hasn’t spoken in depth about a particular topic, Sanders is less likely to engage in speculation. That is, she often just gives shorter answers than the press might like. She will just give the White House position and not engage in hypothetical scenarios reporters might present.
An example would be the briefing on Aug. 1, during the North Korean crisis, when reporters wanted to know how the president would respond to this or that provocation.
Sanders simply and dutifully repeated the White House mantra: “We’re weighing all options, keeping all options on the table. And, as we’ve said many times before, we’re not going to broadcast what we’re going to do until that happens.”
Another somewhat enigmatic change since Sanders took over has been the habit of giving later and later notice as to when briefings will begin.
Under Spicer, a note would be sent to White House reporters announcing the time of the next day’s briefing, typically at 1 or 1:30 p.m. And the note would usually arrive before 10 p.m. on the evening before. Under Sanders, the note usually says the briefing time will be announced in the morning.
Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it isn’t announced until the afternoon. Sometimes there isn’t even a briefing.
Someone conspiratorially minded might suspect that gives the mainstream media less time to game plan and coordinate a line of attack du jour.
But the most pertinent bottom line of all is the press frog has been boiled.
That is, just like the frog that doesn’t realize the heat has been increasing until it’s been boiled, the White House press corps has been largely tamed, as a series of incremental changes has been steadily implemented.
And the indisputable bottom line is that civility has been restored at the daily White House press briefings.
No more must-see TV
Even a casual glance at the dramatic difference between then and now will confirm that.
As mentioned above, a reporter’s raised voice has become such an exception to the norm that Sanders would not even respond to it, ending any confrontation before it even began.
Compare that with just the titles of Spicer’s greatest hits, the most popular YouTube videos of his press briefings as compiled by WND in April:
- “‘It’s OK for Obama to do it but not Trump?’ Sean Spicer slams liberal reporter” (1.1 million views)
- “New White House press secretary SLAMS news media for coverage of the inauguration” (1.04 million views)
- “White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer RIPS media on false reporting POTUS Trump inauguration” (736,000 views)
- “Another heated White House daily briefing for Sean Spicer” (486,000 views)
- “‘Look it up in a thesaurus’ Sean Spicer slams CBS reporter over idiotic questions” (441,000 views)
- “Can you read English?’ Sean Spicer takes on ABC reporter” (446,000 views)
- “Sean Spicer slams NBC reporter for spreading lies about Trump” (395,000 views)
- “Sean Spicer shuts up disrespectful liberal over idiotic questioning” (374,000 views)
- “‘I have seen enough of you’ Sean Spicer slams NBC reporter for accusing Trump of interference” (334,000 views)
Spicer’s press briefings had a WrestleMania appeal. There was an element of gladiatorial spectacle.
And the TV ratings went through the roof, turning White House press briefings from dry, stilted exercises in diplomatic boredom into political versions of Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, Halo and Call of Duty all rolled into one.
In its April 23 article headlined “Must-see TV: Americans go bonkers for Sean Spicer,” WND recounted how the scrappy press secretary was turning briefings into reality TV at its best, publicly accusing members of the media of being “engaged in deliberately false reporting” and making “irresponsible and reckless” claims.”
The briefings were even wildly popular among Spicer’s harshest critics. Bill McMurray tweeted: “Sean Spicer’s press briefings are mesmerizing. Like a piece of red meat thrown to the world’s hungriest, most talented wolves.”
Spicer’s videos were a huge hit on YouTube, commanding up to seven times the viewership of briefings by Obama’s press secretaries.
The briefings – broadcast live on TV by Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and C-SPAN to an average of 4.3 million viewers – even beat broadcast daytime favorites on CBS and ABC, such as “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “General Hospital.”
Fox News’ “Happening Now,” the show during which Spicer’s briefings were frequently broadcast, set records for the highest viewership in the network’s 20-year history.
War and Peace
So, why did the White House pull the plug on must-see TV if it was such a smash?
It may have been hugely popular with the base and cathartic for Trump supporters to see someone stand up against the elite representatives of the mainstream media and do battle with them day after day.
But the constant conflict had to take some kind of toll. The daily spectacle had come to live up to the moniker of media circus, and lion tamer Spicer was looking visibly weary.
The last straw plainly appeared to be the intense scrutiny the White House press staff came under after their version of the firing of Comey differed somewhat from what the president would say two days later in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. And the media pounced on the bedraggled White House staff.
Trump told Holt he had already made up his mind to terminate Comey even before receiving a report from the Justice Department recommending the firing. The president also said his exasperation with the FBI’s Russia investigation may have played a role in his decision. But, Spicer and Sanders had already told the press the president hadn’t made the decision to fire Comey until seeing the report.
Reports at the time indicated Trump was furious that he and his press representatives were not on the same page.
And that’s when all the changes listed above were put into place.
The White House had seemed to decide that instead of continuing to beat up on the press, it would now bring it to heel.
And that’s how the great war between the White House press corps and the White House press staff came to an end and civility was restored.
Partisans can debate over who won the war.
But there is little doubt, it is the press secretary who is now keeping the peace.