New White House press briefing seating chart says a lot about where each reporter stands
On the one hand, the reorganization is just a four-year exercise in bureaucratic reshuffling, the adult equivalent of allocating new desks in a senior middle school classroom.
But homework also has a practical and symbolic significance. An assigned seat is a marker of a news organization’s prominence – quite literally, since a seat in the front rows ensures the most visibility. Not only are these spots the most camera-friendly for network television correspondents, but they also increase the chances of getting a question answered during crowded briefings, especially when the president makes a rare appearance.
“Look at the photos from the first year of briefings under the Trump presidency,” said George Condon, a veteran White House correspondent for the National review (fifth row, far right). “[It’s] drunk. If you didn’t have an assigned seat, you really had a hard time asking a question or even covering it. Additionally, presidents since George HW Bush have held press conferences in the briefing room. Having an assigned seat is essential for those.
There is also the small matter of convenience. Reporters who have no assigned seat must stay away, physically and figuratively marginalized. These “aisle people,” as journalist Brian Karem once dubbed his group of seatless colleagues, are prohibited from using the small workspaces behind the briefing room to write or produce stories; these are reserved for the seated nobility of the press room.
The new lineup will be in full effect as soon as pandemic capacity restrictions are lifted, possibly by next week. The WHCA has periodically limited the number of reporters at briefings to just 14 as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus; in December, the group urged President Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, to put the briefings online.
Under normal circumstances, the absence of an assigned seat would not prevent a reporter from entering the briefing room. Any journalist can apply to enter the White House and is likely to be admitted if they pass a Secret Service check. But where you are seated in the room says a lot about the position of the news agency.
WHCA’s new seating plan does not disturb the existing power structure. The traditional front-row dwellers remain in place – major television networks and the Associated Press and Reuters news services. The same goes for the second-row list of major print publications (The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today).
But the picture is now very different from what it was the last time the seats were distributed.
Notably, the WHCA has increased the number of news organizations with assigned positions to a record 65 – and 14 of them are rookies. It did so by dividing the seats in the middle and back rows between 30 news outlets. Journalists from the BBC and Newsweek, for example, will take turns in the back row, as will correspondents from the Daily Caller and EWTN.
The goal, said WHCA President Steven Portnoy of CBS News Radio (second row, left), was to reflect “the changing nature of the news corps and the country covered by the news corps.”
Thus, places are now reserved for religious broadcasters (Salem Radio Networks, EWTN, the Christian Broadcasting Network); for news outlets for black audiences (the Grio, American Urban Radio Networks); for those broadcasting in Spanish (Telemundo and Univision); and for a group of conservative news sites (the Washington Examiner, Washington Times, Daily Caller and Newsmax). The Washington Blade is the first LGBTQ-oriented publication with an official headquarters. Outfits that didn’t exist a few years ago, like the Cheddar News streaming network, are also in the game.
About 20 years ago, Portnoy said, many seats were filled by reporters from regional newspapers. But a number of those papers — like the New York Daily News, Newsday and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — no longer have full-time White House reporters. And some, like Knight Ridder and Copley News Service, no longer exist.
The new configuration accommodates several foreign-based news outlets, such as Al Jazeera, Agence France-Presse and the BBC, and reserves a third-row seat for a rotating “foreign” correspondent. But some international media that wanted to participate were unsuccessful, such as Tass and Turkish news outlets.
Portnoy would not discuss the reasons for a specific rejection, but said the WHCA prioritizes news outlets with broad reach and those who regularly attend briefings and travel on presidential trips. (BuzzFeed News failed to make the cut because it missed the application deadline, which spokesperson Matt Mittenthal said was due to a miscommunication).
The WHCA began making the assignments in the early 1990s, taking over from White House press staff, Condon said. The White House “really didn’t want to be criticized for choosing among us,” he said.
President Donald Trump, by contrast, had no qualms as the pandemic took hold and the presidential campaign heated up in 2020. Defying newly imposed WHCA capacity limits, he invited representatives of media as reliable as One America News, the Gateway Pundit and Epoch Times at the briefings. The WHCA filed a complaint, to no avail.
One America did not apply for a seat in the current configuration, which probably suits the WHCA. The group of reporters in 2020 made the rare decision to vote to remove the network and its reporter, Chanel Rion, from the room after repeatedly attending briefings in defiance of pandemic restrictions. She remained despite the WHCA’s vote.
At another point, Trump’s press team sought to remove CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins from her network’s assigned front-row seat, ordering her to switch with a reporter sitting in the back. Journalists protested that Trump was trying to punish a reporter whose questions he disliked. Collins also stayed put.
Although disputes between journalists over their seat assignments have occasionally broken out, Condon said the biggest fight broke out in 2010 with the brutal retreat of the legendary Helen Thomas, who covered the White House since the Kennedy administration.
Because of her seniority and out of respect, Thomas sat front row center during briefings and was the only reporter to have a seat assigned to her personally, not just at her news agency. When the seat opened, a fierce lobbying battle between news groups ended with Fox News getting the chair and coming to the fore. The seat is now held primarily by Fox News reporter Peter Doocy, whose daily interactions with PSAKI have occasionally produced fireworks.
Some journalists are rolling their eyes at the maneuvers for the position.
Karem, who now writes a column for Salon.com, said his former employer, Playboy magazine, was denied a permanent seat in 2016, although he never found out why. Either way, Karem attended many briefings as one of the “aisle people” during Trump’s presidency. He even challenged the WHCA and stood at the back of the room last year when the organization imposed its pandemic limits.
“To be honest, I like standing rather than sitting,” he said. Sitting in an assigned seat “I felt like I was back in school. . . . The truth is that as long as you have access to the room, it makes no difference.