Reporters revolted when Associated Press White House correspondent Josh Boak signaled the end of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s briefing while others still had questions to ask — after just 39 minutes of Q&A.
At Monday’s White House press briefing, New York Post correspondent Steven Nelson and Chicago Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet led a revolt after Boak said “Thanks, Jen,” which is the traditional way to declare the end of the briefing, and Ms. Psaki left after one final shouted question.
Several live streams caught the action on video, and Newsbusters and others obtained audio of the kerfuffle.
Mr. Nelson challenged Boak, and Ms. Sweet joined in:
MR. NELSON:You know, you don’t have to hold the briefing over. AP appoints themselves in charge of calling the briefing over.
MR. BOAK: I will do whatever I can…
MR. NELSON: You don’t have to say thank you to call the briefing over.
REPORTER: There are five rows back here and none of us were called on.
MR. NELSON: Let her call the briefing if it’s 40 minutes in.
REPORTER: Five rows. Five rows.
MS. SWEET: Just tell us, why did you do it?
MR. NELSON: Yeah. Can we have an explanation?
MS. SWEET: Why? Why did you do it? Why?
MR. BOAK: The briefing was at 45 minutes…
At this point, others began to shout at Boak and the first two rows to “have some courtesy” and limit their questions. And to Boak’s point, at the moment he called the briefing, there had only been 39 minutes of questions and answers — all of which came from the first two rows.
Boak told them “Look, if you want to yell at me, I’m in the booth. You can do that there.”
It was then that CBS News Radio correspondent and White House Correspondents Association President Steve Portnoy tagged in and tried a more conciliatory approach:
It’s tradition in our press corps that dates back decades for the senior wire reporter to conduct the briefing and end it when we feel we’ve had enough. Clearly, we have felt that we have not had enough. So there might be appropriate, an opportunity for what we as a press corps to collectively decide when we’ve had enough, and to send that signal on our behalf to the AP man or woman so that he or she can signal to the secretary that we have had enough. I think it’s appropriate for us collectively as a unit, as a press corps, to reach that accommodation.
The debate then raged for about ten minutes, with Sweet suggesting that it should be the press secretary who decides when the briefing should end, and Portnoy, after complaining that his listeners were being deprived of his presence because of the debate, said he’d consider it.
As Mr. Portnoy alluded, the tension over this tradition has simmered under the surface for over a decade, roughly since the Associated Press took over the seat that the late Helen Thomas held for decades. The gravity of her experience likely kept complaints to a minimum, but that experience also informed her judgments as to when the briefings should end.
But the denizens of the last 5 rows bristled at AP reporters ending briefings during the Obama administration when half the room still had their hands in the air. Part of that had to do with press secretaries who would give very lengthy answers to the very lengthy and numerous questions from front row reporters.
That complaint subsided during the Trump years, during which briefings were routinely ended after 20 minutes or so (I was present at a Sean Spicer briefing that lasted less than 8 minutes), if they had them at all.
The first 8 months or so of the Psaki era were marked by a remarkable run of briefings during which the reporters present completely exhausted their questions. Some of that is due to the pandemic restrictions, but some of it is Psaki’s style. She is typically much more succinct in her responses than her Obama-era counterparts, and makes a concerted effort to move around the room.
Back-rowers like Nelson, EWTN correspondent Owen Jensen, former Newsmaxer Emerald Robinson, and Today News Africa correspondent Simon Ateba are frequently afforded the chance to ask questions. Even when Psaki doesn’t get to everyone, there is normally a sense that she’s making an effort to be equitable.
That didn’t happen yesterday, as the first two rows hogged all the questions, especially the front row. Fully two-thirds of the briefing passed before the second row even go a question, and then the front row struck again.
But the solution isn’t as simple as it might seem. The problem with Sweet’s suggestion is that the reason for the tradition in the first place is to maintain the notion — artificial or not — that the press secretary serves the people, represented by the press. Other than when the president’s schedule dictates it, the press shop ending the briefings would always leave them open to criticism they’re running from the press.
And while the back five have an excellent point, there is no way Portnoy’s notion — that the collective unit signal the AP when they’re satisfied — would ever work. There are 49 seats, and on busy days there are many more reporters standing. Some of them are what might be described as oddballs. Hell, I was an oddball. If you waited for all of them to get all of their thoughts out, the briefings would last 4 hours a day.
On the other hand, is it fair for 35-40 reporters to be dependent on the whims of whatever potentially unobservant, possibly petulant AP reporter happens to be in that seat on a given day?
In the interest of equity, the duty could fall to the least-senior WHCA officer present at a given briefing, which would theoretically give the back rows a fighting chance at a voice.
But perhaps the best solution would be to pass the baton to someone with the stature and respect that Helen Thomas once commanded, someone senior to the White House beat, like April Ryan. Can you imagine anyone arguing with April like that? Or more importantly, anyone needing to?
Watch above via several streams.
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