Never mind who should get Helen Thomas' seat. Instead, let's blow up the White House briefing room.

Media criticism.
July 21 2010 6:07 PM

Blow Up the White House Briefing Room

It's the best way to resolve who should get Helen Thomas' front-row-center seat.

Helen Thomas in the Brady Briefing Room. Click image to expan.d
Helen Thomas in the White House briefing room

As status-seeking creatures go, it's hard to beat Washington journalists. Take, for instance, the spectacle that is the black-tie White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner, which Michael Dolan described with some restraint in a 1992 Washington City Paper cover story as a "brown-nosing daisy chain." It's a pitiful pageant. Anxious journalists work desperately to boost their social standing by inviting as their guests prominent public figures and outré celebrities and then continue their vertical climbs by trying to crash the "prestigious" after-dinner parties.

A more mundane and less visible manifestation of this status dance can be viewed in the current territorial battle for Helen Thomas' front-row-center seat in the White House James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. The departure of Thomas, who was driven from her beat last month after speaking candidly about Israel and Jews, has stimulated heavy campaigning by Fox News, Bloomberg News, and NPR, all of which want Thomas' chair. The White House Correspondents' Association, which in addition to throwing the annual press prom also apportions the 49 seats in the briefing room to press organizations, says it will decide by Aug. 2 who gets Thomas' old real estate.

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It's not that Fox, Bloomberg, and NPR don't already have seats in the briefing room. As this seating chart published on FiveThirtyEight illustrates, they have very nice spots in the second, second, and third rows, respectively. The seats provide excellent sight lines to the press secretary's lectern. So why do these news organizations want—or need—the old Thomas spot? NPR's official request for a status upgrade, which the Upshot's Michael Calderone published this week, brags about the network's audience size, its regular attendance at daily briefings, as well as the frequent-flier miles it chalks up accompanying the president on his many journeys. We're top drawer, the pitch all but screams. We deserve the top spot on the status chart!

An earlier Calderone piece showcased the "Choose me! Choose me!" franticness of Bloomberg's Al Hunt and Fox's Bill Sammon, both of whom think their outfits deserve Thomas' old power spot. Sammon's letter whimpers that Fox had been promised the nicer slot. Hunt's imperiously declares that Bloomberg deserves the position based not on "seniority, ideology, or tradition" but "merit." This is code for saying, "Fox sucks."

A July 2 Washington Post piece succinctly captured the internal politicking within the White House Correspondents' Association for seats on the board that will in turn determine the seat assignments in the briefing room.

"Candidates are building coalitions, navigating the front-row/back-row politics of the press corps, waging full-scale campaigns to win the votes of 220 voting members. They have talking points, surrogates and political enemies," the Post reported.

Instead of giving the vacant seat to Fox, Bloomberg, or NPR, why not blow up the White House briefing room? Not literally, as the space was only recently remodeled. But who can argue against blowing up the existing status hierarchy? Why should NBC, AP, CBS, ABC, Reuters, and CNN have reserved front seats? Does the arrangement serve news consumers? No. The primary beneficiaries of the current system are the vested news organizations and the White House, which depends on the White House press corps and the theatrical trappings of the briefing room to disseminate its daily political messages.

How about distributing the seats on a first-come, first-served basis to the press? Or use an annual lottery to distribute the seats to news organizations that prove their commitment to coverage by attending a requisite number of briefings the previous year? Or why not rip out the seats and turn the space into a Lord of the Flies mosh pit? That should be OK as long as the number of bodies doesn't exceed the fire code. Another argument for ripping out the seats: Isn't forcing somebody to take a seat an old elementary-school ploy that allows the sheepherder to maintain his dominance over his flock? If the issue is space, why not build a new, larger briefing room with the leftover stimulus money?

That the White House press corps cares so desperately about its perches reveals its psychological frailty. All the jockeying for the still-warm seat speaks to the status anxiety of the applicants. It's not the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, or the New York Times that are pleading for the top spot in the room. They seem to be OK with their second-row seats. It's the arriviste and insecure bosses who run Fox, Bloomberg, and NPR who strive against reason to move up a row or two in the cramped hell that is the briefing room. If only they could repurpose their narcissism toward producing better journalism.

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Michael Newman provided the idea for this piece. Jessica Dweck's "Explainer" put me on the right track (although you can't blame her for my explosive ideas). David Plotz bought me lunch today but insisted we go to the restaurant he favored. Want to see your name in Slate? Send me a Fresca idea, and don't forget to put the word "Fresca" in the subject line to help me sort the e-mails. My address is slate.pressbox@gmail.com. My Twitter feed isn't about you; it's about me. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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