I admire Sam Stein. The other day, we were in a Robert Gibbs briefing, and he sat down before it started in a seat that happened to be Politico’s. Having once been politely booted from the same seat by Jonathan Martin, I stood nearby curious to see how long Sam would make it. Sure enough, a few minutes into the briefing, Carol Lee came and kicked him out, asserting her right, as a member of that organization, to sit in the assigned seat. Politico’s seat in February was in the sixth row, far left, but it has now moved up to the fourth row, three seats behind CBS' Chip Reid (see charts below).
Undaunted, Sam got up, noticed the second seat in the last row was empty, and re-seated himself. About five minutes later, Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News claimed it. Sam had to stand with the rest of us; Huffington Post, like FiveThirtyEight, doesn’t have a plaque-stamped seat.
There are 49 assigned seats in the James S. Brady briefing room, and thus far there are typically another 30-60 people packed standing in the U-shaped ring around the seating perimeter during briefings. For a visual, check out the Daily Show clip from this past Thursday night appended to the bottom of this post.
How are these seats assigned? The White House Correspondents Association determines who sits, not the White House Press Office. “Everything out there,” a White House staff person told me when I first arrived, referring to the demarcation between White House Press Staff offices and the working press areas, “we have nothing to do with.”
The WHCA's Executive Board meets regularly. The board knows the media landscape is changing, and it has the thankless task of having to accommodate increasingly frequent demand for reallocation of seat assignments. At a recent meeting, seats were juggled and the chart changed.
According to a media source, "In the past, the game of musical chairs in the briefing room was a combination of petty media politics and sucking up to the administration." As for the changes made after the recent board meeting, "This latest alignment does justice to the state of the mainstream media in the White House press corps."
Here's February's seating chart:
It's worth pointing out that the WHCA doesn't decide who can be in the briefing room. Losing a seat is not the same as losing access.
Still, one reason who sits where matters is that Gibbs only occasionally farms out questions as deep as the fourth row, rarely beyond that, and only occasionally goes to the standing wings near the front (David Corn is an effective questioner from his usual spot standing next to the WSJ, but few others catch Gibbs' eye). Nearly everyone in the first two rows get one question and a follow-up every day, which is at least the first 20 questions in what are typically 45-minute briefings. If you want an on-camera question and thus the best chance to put Gibbs on the spot with an answer that might become hard news, seating location matters. For his part, Gibbs has pledged to distribute questions better, but it will not ever change that those near the front have a huge edge on the field.
The three main factors in the shifting turf battle are (1) attrition as news organizations contract or disappear; (2) reporters working for organizations who have seats not coming regularly enough to protect their seats; and (3) the emergence of new media.
Attrition is not only inevitable, it's something the organizations plan fights over well in advance. For example, Fox News and Bloomberg will ultimately battle for a front row seat when one of those is vacated. Wire services AP and Reuters have the front row, Bloomberg is second row. NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN have the front row, Fox News is second row.
The financial dire straits of many shareholder-owned news media, including the vaunted New York Times (did NYT have trouble meeting payroll the other day?), will undoubtedly play a role in White House seating. For example, the Tribune bankruptcy has led to its seats consolidating into the L.A. Times seat in the third row. McClatchy is a possibly vulnerable seat down the road.
People not showing up to protect their turf speaks for itself. Not everyone shows up for every briefing, and those hungering to move closer to the podium take note of who's not showing up. Stop showing up, or show up infrequently, and your seat may become vulnerable.
As for the emergence of new media, the board knows it's inevitable, although certainly assigned seats or workspaces haven't happened yet. Politico is the closest to this model, but even it has a staff of roughly 50 people and a print edition. One reason is that the only organizations to whom the WHCA will even consider assigning seats (or, for that matter, the cramped workspaces crammed adjoining the briefing room) are WHCA members. Whether new media members will join the WHCA is an open question. Certainly, if you want the right to purchase a table at the WHCA annual dinner apparently a.k.a. "Prom" ($1,800 for a table of 10 seats), you have to be a member.
In certain ways the musical chairs fight seems small. It's inside baseball, but people seem to want to know about how things work inside the White House press corps, and this is one of those things. You're unlikely to hear about this from Jeff Zeleny or "that guy from Flight of the Conchords" (Chuck Todd) for defensible reasons.
If for no other reason, Sam needs a handy guide to know whose seat he's nabbing.
(Some chart notes on abbreviations:)
AFP = Agence-France Press (a major worldwide news agency akin to AP and Reuters)
NPR = National Public Radio
AURN = American Urban Radio Networks (the only African-American owned radio network)
VOA = Voice of America
CCH = Commerce Clearing House (another international-based publishing organization, owned by Wolters Kluwer)
UPI = United Press International
CSM = Christian Science Monitor
BNA = Bureau of National Affairs