The Least Important Crisis Facing the White House Press Corps: Front Row Seats


When Helen Thomas said Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine," she ended one thing -- her 60-odd year career in journalism -- but started another: a dignity-free tussle over her front-row seat in the White House briefing room. Fox News and Bloomberg both think the seat ought to be theirs, and both are lobbying the White House Correspondents Association to make it a reality.

Each organization has its own reasons for coveting the seat (which, in a unique arrangement, was assigned to Thomas herself rather than to Hearst Newspapers, her outlet). Although Fox News thrives on a sense of grievance, it also craves legitimacy; a plum spot in the press room would be a sign the network's status is catching up with its leading place in the ratings.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, has remade itself from a narrow provider of financial information into something much more far-reaching, but its public image is still closer to the former. Snagging Thomas's seat would draw attention to its non-business reporting. (Recall that when Bloomberg bought BusinessWeek, the company stressed how owning the magazine would enhance its cachet on Capitol Hill.)

For Display Purposes Only

What neither entity wants the seat for is its value in breaking news and getting scoops. That's because it has none. White House briefings are the epitome of journalism-as-stenography. Just take a look at the seating chart: Aside from Thomas's now-vacant chair, the front row is reserved for TV networks and wire services. The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are all in the second row, even though it's their enterprise reporting that typically drives the networks' coverage, not the other way around. Whatever tough questioning does take place there is typically for display purposes only (and, yes, Jake Tapper, I'm talking about you).

Fox and Bloomberg want Thomas's seat so badly because of the symbolism they see in it, but the real symbolism here isn't what they think it is. The whole phenomenon of the briefing room is a metaphor for the clubbiness and toothlessness that all too often characterize the Washington press corps. (See Jon Stewart's typically trenchant comment on the issue.) It's a club so tame and insular that a reporter for CNN will publicly back Fox's bid for the seat, even though, in the real world, the two organizations are vicious rivals.

Politesse and deference to seniority have their place, but it's not in a room where journalists are supposed to be competing to hold our most powerful institution to account.