Six unusual things about Sean Spicer's press briefing

By Paul Farhi

After creating an uproar in his first official act on Sunday, new US press secretary Sean Spicer came to the White House briefing room to calm the waters today. And for the most part, he seemed to.

Spicer's first official briefing was a mostly routine affair - a basic give-and-take with reporters that produced a few headlines. In any case, it produced almost none of the perplexity and outrage that accompanied his riled-up statements over the weekend about the size of his boss' inaugural attendance. Spicer even wore his sharpest suit for meeting the press.

But what may have looked pro forma had some unusual elements. Among them:

1 The new world order's new briefing order

Journalists (if not real people) were surprised by a subtle break with tradition: Spicer bypassed the AP reporter for the first question and called on a New York Post journalist instead.

The AP - the most broadly distributed news service in the world - has been the first question-asker at briefings for as long as . . . well, a long time; no one's quite sure when and how the AP became the first question-asker.

The symbolism of this move wasn't lost on the assembled hacks. The New York Post was a favoured outlet of President Donald Trump's during his salad days as a New York City real estate developer. More to the point, it is owned by a company headed by conservative media baron Rupert Murdoch. Spicer also called on two other Murdoch-owned outlets, Fox News and Fox Business Network, early in the proceedings. A reporter from the unallied, but conservative, Christian Broadcasting Network got the second question of the briefing.

Although Spicer eventually got around to calling on others, including the AP, a subtle message may have been telegraphed.

This isn't just media navel-gazing. The order of questions at a press briefing can set a tone - hostile, combative, easygoing, etc. - for the entire proceeding. Press secretaries, and presidents, can manipulate the order of questioning like a thermostat, calling on a reporter deemed friendly when the questioning gets heated or breaking the intensity of a line of questions by shifting to a journalist who'll change the subject. Spicer's an old pro; the former Republican National Committee spokesman knows how to cool off a room by changing gears and questioners.

2 Limited press access?

Reporters have been bracing for a cold reception by Trump, but three days in, the reception hasn't been as chilly as expected. In addition to Spicer's why-can't-we-all-get-along tone today, the White House press staff offered two extra pool "sprays," brief access to the president by videographers and photographers (the White House News Photographers Association complained that its members were shut out all too often under President Obama). One impromptu session was in the Roosevelt Room while Trump met with union leaders.

In other press-access news, Spicer suggested there may be . . .

White House press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily White House briefing. Photo / AP
White House press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily White House briefing. Photo / AP

3 Something called Skype seats

The press secretary introduced the idea of reserving four digital channels at each briefing for reporters from distant news organisations to pipe in and ask questions. The oddly brand-name-specific idea (why not "Facetime seats"?) was first floated by "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd in an interview with the Poynter Institute last week.

More is always better, but one reaction from journalists is that plenty of reporters closer to home can't get into the briefings now. "Just FYI, @seanspicer, there are already like 90 DC-based regional reporters who rarely get a question at the WH briefings," tweeted Thomas Burr, the Salt Lake Tribune's Washington bureau chief and past president of the National Press Club.

In which case . . .

4 Why not get a bigger press room?

As is, the White House briefing room contains just 49 seats. On days like today, it's crammed with people, camera equipment and laptops. The small warren of workspaces in the back sometimes floods; the whole place sometimes doesn't have that minty fresh smell.

Trump Administration officials have suggested moving the briefings to a larger venue next door to the White House, in the Old Executive Office Building. The idea has been received with some alarm by reporters, who see it as a preliminary step to removing them from the White House grounds entirely. But a bigger room would mean more seats and more reporters asking questions.

Spicer didn't address the press' ultimate whereabouts, and, oddly, wasn't asked about it.

5 Who are these guys?

There were the usual questions from the usual reporters at the briefing. But there were some unusual questioners, too. Two of them list themselves as public-relations specialists.

Jon-Christopher Bua is a longtime White House pressroom habitué who describes himself as a commentator and analyst; he also describes himself as the owner of a "strategic communications and public relations" firm.

Another questioner, Robert Weiner, says he writes newspaper editorials. But Weiner's website says he offers "full service public affairs and issue strategy". Weiner said in an interview that he no longer provides such services. "I've got to change that," he said.

6 Sean Spicer is not a comedian

Spicer fell flat in his opening attempt to make light of his appearance on Sunday, joking that his predecessor, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest, "was voted most popular press secretary by the press corps. ... His title is secure at least for the next few days".

Tumbleweeds and crickets ensued.

On the other hand, he'll be here all week (and year).

- Washington Post

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