At White House, frustration over who gets to ask questions

“You forgot half the room,” a reporter shouted to principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-PierreKarine Jean-PierreDemocratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills OSHA suspends enforcement of COVID-19 vaccine mandate for businesses Inflation raises focus on Biden Fed pick MORE from the back of the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House this week. 

The outburst, picked up on a live video feed of the briefing and included in a written transcript, comes amid audible frustrations among some reporters in the briefing room over who gets called on to ask questions at the daily sessions.

Competition among the press corps for a chance to ask questions at the briefings is nothing new, but the grumbling has been loud enough to sneak into the public’s view in the last week or two.

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“You should take questions from this side of the room,” one reporter barked at Jean-Pierre as she ended Monday’s briefing. 

“Yeah, there’s like five more rows here,” another chimed in. 

“Tomorrow, guys. Tomorrow. Tomorrow,” she responded. “I’ll get the ... back tomorrow.” 

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s briefing, a reporter again shouted at Jean-Pierre, “You forgot the back.” 

“I called on the — I called on the back,” she responded. “We had [U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina RaimondoGina RaimondoEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Shipwreck sends waste thousands of miles Buttigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey Scott says he will block nominees until Biden officials testify on supply chain crisis MORE] take ... questions from the back, guys.”

Raimondo had taken questions from a reporter seated behind the first several rows earlier during the briefing and Jean-Pierre had taken questions during briefings on both Monday and Tuesday from beyond the first few rows of the room. Transportation Secretary Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown Harris's office undergoes difficult reset The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden to announce increased measures for omicron MORE also took questions from beyond the first rows during Monday's briefing.  

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Most of the complaints appear to be coming from reporters further back in the briefing room, many of whom represent smaller news outlets.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBiden, Putin to talk next week amid military buildup in Ukraine Epidemic of smash-and-grab crime is definitely man-made US intelligence says Russia planning Ukraine offensive involving 175K troops: reports MORE, returning to the briefing room for the first time since a positive COVID-19 test late last month, made a point of calling on several reporters not seated in the first few rows of the briefing room. 

“I just want to skip around because I know we’re not getting to enough people in the back, so I hear,” Psaki said before calling on reporters from Time and the Daily Mail.
 
Reporters are assigned seats in the small press room, which was a pool before being converted into a workplace for the media during the Nixon administration. 

The seats in the front row are taken by the biggest players in journalism: the four major networks of NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox; The Associated Press; and CNN. 

The second row includes other large outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, CBS News Radio, NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post. 

Seat assignments are reviewed and determined by a committee of four members of the White House Correspondents' Association board that weighs factors such as an outlet's reach and its average daily, weekly and monthly audience when placing each seat. 

Further back in the room are smaller outlets as well as a number of foreign news outlets and regional news organizations such as The Boston Globe.

Some news organizations do not have formal seats in the room.

(The Hill has a seat in the fourth row of the room.)

Smaller news outlets frequently complain that White House press secretaries representing presidents in both parties pay too much attention to the front row and do not take enough questions from other rows in the room.

The smaller outlets also often complain that the reporters in the front row — specifically those representing the networks — often play to the cameras, monopolize time and get to ask too many follow-up questions.

Few want to talk about the drama publicly — and those who spoke to The Hill generally asked that their names be withheld to talk candidly.

“Those of us who don’t get to ask questions every day are frustrated that they’re squeezing in seven questions with dubious news value,” said one White House reporter who attends the briefings regularly. “They have been asking maybe five or seven different questions hitting every major news story so they get their clip of their correspondent asking about all of the major news of the day.” 

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Michael Shear, a reporter with The New York Times who has been covering the White House for more than a decade, said it is typical for press officials to use their personal discretion when selecting who to call on in the briefing room and for how long. 

“Often the people who don’t get called on are rightly annoyed,” Shear said. “In an ideal world, everybody would get to ask all of their questions. ... Sometimes they [press officials] do a better job of spreading the opportunities more broadly around the room, and sometimes they don’t.” 

He also acknowledged the recent irritation among some of his colleagues.

“You could feel the frustration in the back of the room,” he said of the briefings this week. “We who represent the bigger networks and the news organizations, I think we have to be more respectful of our other colleagues.”

Since Biden’s inauguration, Psaki has called on reporters throughout the room for questions, and one source familiar with the day-to-day planning said the White House makes a sincere effort to get to as many reporters as they can. Briefings typically end with reporters shouting out additional questions — something far from unique under Biden.

Oftentimes, Psaki will promise to “circle back” to a reporter with an answer to a question that she does not have readily available. 

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The networks, wire services and other big news organizations at the front of the room also travel with the president regularly, unlike some of the smaller news outlets. Their investment in their coverage is large, as is their reach across the country.

Each press secretary has his or her own style, journalists who have worked in the room for years pointed out. Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany once explained her reasoning for ignoring a reporter in November of 2020 by saying, “I don't call on activists.”

Regardless of who is conducting the briefings under what administration, it is the responsibility of all of the reporters in the room to make sure a select few are not “dominating” the flow of the briefing, Shear said.  

“This is all really self-policing,” he added. “The White House Correspondents' Association is not the kind of organization that’s going to mandate that reporters only get one question. ... It sort of relies on everybody's good graces to do the right thing.”